Now, in respect to the human race at large, you do not perceive a constant progress of improvement that looks as if approaching nearer and nearer to perfection. On the contrary, we see the human race as a whole subject to slight swings; and it never yet made some steps forward but what it did, soon after, slide back again into its previous station with double the celerity. --Moses Mendelssohn
Scientists and the press have been sounding alarms recently about the increasing politicization of science, particularly the science of public health and the environment. At the federal level, there have been reports of research appointments based on political loyalty rather than scientific credentials, as well as suppression of research results and reassurances about public health threats made without scientific justification (Grimaldi & Edsall, 2004; Kupferman, 2003; Lyman, 2003; McNeil, 2004; Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of the Inspector General, 2003; Zweifel, 2004). In the field of environmental health the trend can be felt even on the local level, where it is now a common practice for some top management positions in health departments to be filled by political appointment rather than through a traditional search for the candidate with the best professional credentials. In light of these developments, it may be tempting to feel some nostalgia for the good old days when scientists were scientists and politicians knew their place.
Was there really ever such a time?
Some of the good old days were pretty bad, according to one former environmental health manager, who asked to remain anonymous. He began his career in food safety in the 1960s in a certain medium-sized city. At that time, he told the Journal of Environmental Health (JEH), many of the other health inspectors had their jobs because of political connections: "The commissioner would tell my boss that he had a cousin twice removed who just got out of the army and to get him a job as a health inspector." The political system in those days was "very good," he added dryly:
Me being a green rookie, I'd go out to some restaurant that had been there since before I was born and ... find the place filthy, and before I could get back to the office with my report, my boss knew about it.... My first year ... I probably was offered, oh, maybe 150 dinners and 50 bottles of booze during my inspections to look the other way.
But over the next decade, he said, restaurateurs came to understand that they "weren't able to do that anymore." He attributed this change to passage of a state law that required sanitarians to be registered, and to the credentialing and professionalization of health inspectors.
The point of this example is not that one should be complacent about the present state of relations between science and politics simply because "these things have always happened." Nor is it a call to despair. Rather, it suggests that politics is a demon with which environmental health professionals will have to keep wrestling, in one form or another, indefinitely. Restaurant inspections may have grown less political than they were forty years ago, but meanwhile, other environmental health issues have grown more so.
In other words (to paraphrase the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), things get better, but they get worse again, too.
This month's installment of the JEH series on politics and science considers an issue that has been a particular locus of political activity in recent years: the problem of wastewater disposal in unsewered areas. "If there's anything that can cause an environmental health director to lose the backing and support and goodwill of the community, the staff, or both," one retired director told JEH, "it's the sewage disposal program." In developing and enforcing sewage disposal regulations, scientists concerned about the greater good of the public and the environment regularly make decisions that affect the economic interests of vocal subpopulations--developers, contractors, and property owners, for instance. Those decisions can unleash political forces that put entire departments under siege.
In the following pages, JEH will examine two cases of sewage disposal politics and their implications for environmental health practice.
Act I: Politics and Progress in Utah
"When somebody can install a system just across the county line that's not allowed in your county, where you know the soils are similar and the conditions are similar," Dave Robbins told JEH, "you know there must be something going on."
Mr. Robbins is president of Environmental Compliance International (ECI), a firm that provides water and wastewater compliance consulting to people who want to develop their property. In that capacity, he comes into contact with perhaps 40 environmental health offices in eight Western states. Before he entered his present line of business, however, Robbins was a health inspector for seven years. "So I have that perspective," he said.
Members of the regulated community have a different perception of the health department and of environmental health in particular than do members of the general public, he observed. That is especially the case for sectors affected by complex regulations and permitting procedures. The perception is often negative.
"The people who have to go in every day to get permits ... sometimes feel that decisions are made based on political realities, he said.
Is the feeling justified?
"Oh, I think it is justified," Robbins said. "If you go to Utah," he added, "it's very difficult to get permitted for an alternative wastewater system. So if you can't do a standard wastewater system, you can't build on your property." He suggested that difficulty in getting approval for alternative systems and variability in the types of systems permitted by counties often reflect antigrowth politics rather than a strict application of science.
Several officials from health jurisdictions in Utah expressed surprise at that notion. They pointed out that the alternative systems permissible in Utah are set at the state level by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, as indicated in the Utah Administrative Code (2004). A local jurisdiction cannot issue permits for systems not recognized by the state code. Currently, the code allows three alternatives to standard septic systems--earth fill systems, at-grade systems, and mound systems. Systems of other types are designated "experimental" in the code and can be used only if backed up with a standard septic system.
"People have a perception that our alternative-system approval [process] is difficult, but it is not so," said Kiran Bhayani, engineering manager at the department of environmental quality. The state's rules are designed to protect groundwater, he said "People at the local level may use our rules for an antigrowth agenda. That's possible. But it is not our intent. Our intention is environmental protection and safeguarding public health." Furthermore, the mechanism for approval of new technologies, he argues, is based on common sense and logic. The product manufacturer or product proponent has to bring in a list of installations, references, and any approval that other states or counties may have given, with an explanation of the basis for approval. "And then we will review," he said. "All I'm looking at is the theory behind the widget--is it likely to work."
Within the next couple of months. Mr. Bhayani added, he is going to recommend three more alternative systems for recognition by the Utah code. In the meantime, a committee, with representatives from health departments and local governments across the state, is at work on a document called "Voluntary Utah Guidelines for Management of Onsite Systems." According to committee member Jeff Coombs, environmental health supervisor of Tooele County, the document looks toward "the inevitability that we will start using other types of alternative treatments."
"There are those who will tell you that the state department of environmental quality can be difficult to work with," added John Willie, county administrator for Washington County, Utah, "but once I got acquainted with them and got a chance to sit on this committee, I think they're very workable."
Why, then, are so few alternative systems approved for use in Utah--fewer than in many other states? "Utah may be a little on the conservative side," Mr. Willie suggested, "and may be not quite as anxious to delve into possibly untried technology as some other states may be."
For Bhayani, it's a question of resources. "We are working on updating the rules as fast as we can. But ... these are hard times. I wish I had a little more manpower." When he took over responsibility for the wastewater program in 1991, Bhayani had no staff. In 1996 he obtained funding for one position, but he still combines his wastewater responsibilities with oversight of mining, industrial, and other programs. Given this reality. Bhayani believes that manufacturers and proponents of new systems need to be more proactive. "Some operators don't see that there's a market in Utah," he said, "so they don't submit things." He also expects them to do their homework. "If the product manufacturer or the product proponent wishes to have his product approved, he needs to communicate with us on a logical basis, rather than saying, 'Oh, my product works, it has never failed on me, it will never fail.' I have heard that thing before."
The state does not seem to have set itself the mission of actively …