Ecologists Question Cost-Benefit Scrutiny

Article excerpt

STEADY rain is now falling on the United States environmental movement - not acid rain, but rain filled with enough anti-ecological sourness to bring out a big umbrella.

Faced with clouds of increased criticism from Congress and states because of the burgeoning costs of protecting the environment, a coalition of 15 leading US environmental organizations reacted with an urgent letter-writing campaign launched in early July.

"We have never faced such a serious threat to our environmental laws," stated the unusual collaborative letter critical of pending congressional legislation to amend environmental laws.

The new climate involves a major push to analyze risks and to assess the costs and benefits of solutions to environmental issues. It arises mainly from those states and localities facing the high costs of meeting federal mandates for environmental cleanup or preservation. The familiar "one size fits all" kind of environmental law adds costly burdens to states with differing needs and regional variations.

Two bills on risk assessment are working their way through the US House and Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee said in a report the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should fund research to improve comparative risk analysis, and it asked the agency "to provide a report within 60 days" (after a bill passes) on plans to use comparative risk analysis to set national environmental goals. Behind the pressure is a visible shift in environmental politics. Environmental issues, shaped in the past mostly as national issues with broad laws against heavy industry, now have become more localized. Home town pollution

Local and state polluters, such as water districts, waste-treatment plants, and local businesses are now under more scrutiny, and face restrictions and regulations.

But environmentalists are leery of the call for change. "In simple form, risk analysis is a way to subvert regulations, a way to look at fiscal impacts of regulatory actions and decide whether or not they are appropriate," says Scott Faber from American Rivers in Washington. "I think you define risk another way. What is the threat posed to human health and the environment?"

According to estimates from the EPA, states and local governments will spend more than 30 percent of their revenues fulfilling environmental mandates by the year 2000. One requirement of the Clean Water Act is that water systems in every city and town have to be monitored for pineapple herbicides.

The environmental coalition letter was sent to millions of members. Among other issues it criticized the push for extensive cost-benefit and risk analysis as the way to establish environmental priorities in an era of tight budgets. …