In early 1968 there was a desperate need for our nation to understand the manner in which our citizens were unwittingly befouling our beautiful earth’s air, water and soil. As a mechanism for doing this a handful of environmental scientists including myself began to lobby the Congress for the establishment of a federal agency that could set the tone for our states to begin enhancing their environmental protection efforts.
We succeeded in 1970 in having the USEPA established, but that was just the beginning of a decade long educational process for our elected officials. During the ensuing decade I personally testified about three dozen times on behalf of the the passage of a safety net of environmental regulations intended to be handed down to the various states to carryout on their own. A condition we called state primacy. During this very successful education of the Congress and the nation we established seven major regulations which collectively would make our environment safe from previous ignorance. I say ignorance because only a small number of folks purposely despoiled our environment–most did so unwittingly.
The legislation began with the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1972, which has made our water safer for human consumption, then The Resource Conservation and Recovery act, which put standards on safe waste disposal. Soon we passed what we now know as the Clean Water Act which dramatically improved the quality of our nations streams; then the Clean Air Act that did the same for our air, all but eliminating our worst smog; then The Surface Mining and Reclamation Act that established standards for all types of mining so as to allow the development of our natural resources without significant damage to our environment.
The final two major laws completed by 1980 were The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act which insured plentiful food production without chemical damage to our farmland, and finally the grand daddy of them all, Superfund, whose real name is The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act.
One can argue that the latter was over-reaching and has caused as much harm to our nations economy as it has allowed improvement of our environment, but in general terms these laws created a sea change for our citizens and our environment in which we essentially all became environmentalists.
Best of all, during this decade each and every state established their own environmental protection agency and went about educating their own citizens as to the need and wherewithal to protect their wonderful natural resources for them and their heirs.
I can make a strong argument that little or nothing has been achieved by USEPA since 1980. Yes, nearly all of the federal laws I mentioned have been strengthened with tougher standards, but if space permitted I could argue that not a single one of these amendments could pass a cost benefit test. That is to say that in every case the cost of obeying the law far exceeded any marginal benefit to either the health of the public or the benefit to the environment. What USEPA primarily became was a federal police force, something a democratic nation should not have, and a paperwork enforcer punishing citizens for failing to follow the onerous paperwork burdens of every day life, while not having damaged the environment in question at all.
It is time to reconsider the need for a federal Environmental Protection Agency, which did indeed initially serve us well. Just as we cede control of our children’s lives to our children when they reach adulthood, it is time to cede control of our environment to our state agencies who have largely done an outstanding job, and in no way have been delinquent in their duties. If anything, the citizens of each state would argue that the states are too restrictive, while at the same time recognize that government by one’s neighbors in their own state is far better than government from far away Feds. Our neighbor regulators live amongst us and understand the problems that do exist first-hand, and can regulate with reason while never shirking their duty to insure that we leave the earth to our children and their children in as good a shape or better than we found it.
The states are capable of establishing a committee of the whole which could continue to review standards that need to apply to them all, while instituting new or different regulations more suitable for each of their environments. As the Federal USEPA has grown to become one of our largest enforcement agencies in both money and manpower, much of the money could be redistributed to the states and the manpower could go home and serve their friends and neighbors in their native localities as a result of the enlarged budgets of the state agencies nearly all of which are actually in need of greater funding.
But in the end, the American taxpayer would save money, the federal manpower requirement would be reduced, while the public health of our population and the health of our air soil and water would suffer no decline whatsoever.
You may think the sunset of USEPA to be a pipe dream and that federal agencies can not be undone. Admittedly, it is not easy, but if our nation is to advance to a more economical position without suffering any decline of health, it needs to be done. History will tell us we have abandoned a host of agencies that oversaw antiquated aspects of society decades ago and more should be let go. This is addition by subtraction, and remember the Chinese proverb that says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
To support my position, next month I will document a few dozen arguments underway between state EPA’s and the Feds over what is right and what is wrong for the home front.