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Why Is The EPA Like It Is
By William Sanjour

I am frequently asked why the United States Environmental Protection Agency does not seem to be particularly interested in protecting the environment. EPA is frequently cited as not only failing to protect the environment but even for working at cross purposes to environmental protection. I've concluded that to understand why EPA is the way that it is, you must start at the top, at the White House.

Any President of the United States and his immediate staff have an agenda of about a half dozen issues that they are most concerned with. These are usually national security, foreign affairs, the economy, the budget, and maybe one or two other issues. These I'll call the Class A priorities. Other presidential responsibilities such as housing, education, welfare, transportation, the environment, veteran's affairs, etc. I'll call Class B priorities.

Equally important, but less well-known is the so-called "hidden agenda." This includes such considerations as getting re-elected, getting supporters re-elected, and "where do we go when our term in office is over?" The hidden agenda is not peculiar to the White House as similar considerations are shared by every government official from the Speaker of the House to the House janitor. We are, after all, talking about people who, although they may be lofty government dignitaries, nevertheless have mortgages to pay, children to send to college, and orthodontist bills. When one brings the hidden agenda out of hiding, the actions of the government become the actions of people and they become clearer.

For the Class A priorities the President appoints people he knows and trusts and he demands performance. He will expect the military to be able to deploy forces anywhere in the world when an emergency arises. If they are not ready when he needs them, he will "bang heads and kick asses." But can you picture any President of the United States bringing the Secretary of Education into his office and slamming his fist on the table because of low SAT scores in Sheboygan? Or bringing the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency into the oval office to chew him out for the pollution in the Cuyahoga River? I can't. And that, to my mind, is the difference. The President expects performance in Class A. He expects something else in Class B.

That something else is peace and quiet. The President will usually appoint people to head Class B agencies who are amenable to the special interests concerned with that agency, rather than his own cronies, but the message that goes out from the White House to the managers in Class B is, "do anything you want so long as it doesn' t impinge on the President' s Class A priorities." But EPA can do almost nothing which doesn't adversely affect business, especially big and influential business, and that disturbs the President's peace and quiet. Furthermore, uncovering the hidden agenda reveals that the President needs big business to finance election campaigns and his staff is looldng ahead to parlaying their White House experience to seven figure jobs in private industry.

The Administrator of EPA is usually someone who is agreeable to the mainline environmentalists but one who is also a "team player." He can make all the speeches he wants about cutting down Brazilian forests and the environmental ethic, but he must not do anything to make waves. This message permeates the entire agency. The message isn't transmitted through written or even oral instructions. It's more a case of survival of the "fittest." People who like to get things done, people who need to see concrete results for their efforts, don't last long at EPA. When it comes to drafting and implementing rules for environmental protection, getting results means making enemies of powerful and influential people. No, they don't usually get fired, but they don't get advanced either, and their responsibilities are transferred to other people and they usually leave the agency in disgust. The kind of people who get ahead are those clever wimps who can be terribly busy while they procrastinate, obfuscate, and come up with superficially plausible reasons for not accomplishing anything.

It is sad and funny to attend Congressional oversight hearings and listen to environmentalists enumerate EPA's inefficiency, incompetence, and intransigence while recommending that its budget be increased. One could point out that EPA has written many regulations, that they have in fact reduced pollution in many areas, they have cleaned up many Superfund sites, and millions of dollars in fines have been collected against polluters and some have even been sent to jail. How does this square with my description of the agency. Easy. In most cases of meaningful action taken by EPA, if you look carefully, you will find that EPA was forced or coerced into taking action and rarely ever initiated it. For example:

  • EPA more often than not opposes Congress passing really tough environmental laws.
  • A whole industry has been created by such organizations as the Enviromental Defense Fund to sue EPA to make them do what the law already requires them to do and for which they are already being paid.
  • Taxpayer's money is used to defend EPA against such suits to protect their right not to do what the taxpayers are paying them to do.
  • It has gotten so bad that a proposed regulation must be under a court ordered deadline (brought by an environmental group) before it will even be considered for the Administrator's signature.
  • More time and money is spent figuring out how to remove companies from regulation than is spent to get companies regulated.
  • Most enforcement cases against influential polluters are started by some combination of environmental organizations, the media, and local citizens. It often takes years of badgering through the media and through Congressmen and other politicians before EPA will act.
  • Although there are occasional newspaper accounts of EPA fining major polluters millions of dollars, when looked at closely, these fines are usually much less than the amount of money the polluter made by breaking the law in the first place.
  • The point is that anyone who has to deal with EPA (anyone whose property, health and life may depend on EPA) has to know what the agency's real priorities are and act accordingly. It is foolish to assume that " the government won't let them do anything bad to me." After all, EPA is really an un-integrated collection of different offices, each with its own legislation, clientele, and priorities. The priorities are influenced by many outside forces. To illustrate this, lets look at my own office, the Office of Solid Waste (OSW) which has the responsibility for the regulation of hazardous waste facilities.

The groups which, today, have the most influence on OSW are, in order of importance, the waste management industry, state governments, powerful waste producing industries, important congressmen, and national environmental groups. The national media is also important and it can be number one or any other number, but only for a short period of time.

The waste management industry has the most to gain or lose by the activities of OSW. Therefore they expend the most to influence the agency. Unlike the press or grassroots groups, which interact with EPA only sporadically, the waste management industry is in contact with EPA at all levels, at all times. And it doesn't stop with EPA. They are in touch with the President, the White House staff, Senators, Congressmen, Governors, State Legislators, State Environmental Protection Agencies, County Commissioners, the Press, and National Environmental Organizations.

Waste management has been the growth industry of the eighties and is likely to continue into the nineties. The industry has grown very rich through its ability to control the governments who are supposed to be controlling them and it shares its wealth with its benefactors. Bureaucrats learn that crossing the industry can get one into a lot of trouble, whereas cooperating with them has many rewards including the hope of lucrative employment. Scores of federal and state employees have already done so including several former adtninistrators of EPA.

Does this mean that EPA has cynically abandoned the environment for the sake of this powerful hazardous waste lobby? No, just the opposite. Most people in EPA equate the waste management industry with the protection of the environment, and the industry's opponents as anti-environmental NIMBYs. EPA finds it very comfortable to be allied with a big powerful industry which presents itself as the protector and defender of the environment.

The trouble is that the commercial hazardous waste business is a business. As a business, its income is produced by taking in wastes through the gate. Waste is money, the more the better. Expense is incurred by treating the waste so as to protect human health and the environment. This costs money. A successful business maximizes income and does everything it can to reduce expenses. These goals are just the opposite of what the goals of EPA should be, i.e. to reduce the amount of hazardous wastes and maximize protection of human health and the environment. This business, by its very nature, must do everything it can to thwart serious attempts to reduce the amount of hazardous waste produced in America and at the same time take any shortcuts it can get away with in the treatment of that waste.

There is also a big difference in how the waste management industry and the environmentalists go about their business. The national environmental groups tend to deal with EPA as an institution. Industry lobbyists and technical staff seek out the person responsible for making a decision whose outcome they are interested in and work directly with him and his supervisor. Flattery and ego building are common, powerful tools. In addition to the real and hinted at job opportunities, people who cooperate with the lobbyists find that the lobbyist will lobby for their advancement with upper management. Those who don't cooperate will find the lobbyists lobbying for their heads. The operating principle at EPA is that "no good deed goes unpunished."

The bottom line is that if you want EPA to pay attention to you, you have to affect the careers of EPA employees. If you organize and have a large block of supporters, then you can influence local, state and federal elections. You can also use your influence on local banks, merchants, or anyone else who might be tempted to profit from a hazardous waste facility in your backyard. By pressuring these people, you in turn affect the pocketbooks and careers of EPA employees, and thus their actions. If you win locally, EPA will follow.

William Sanjour is a career EPA employee.
This article was reprinted from a publication by Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes, Inc.

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