Ex-EPA Head: Simplify Environmental Laws

Article excerpt

As its silver anniversary approaches on Saturday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency is hunkering beneath an ominous budgetary cloud.

This week, the House and Senate were set to approve $5.7 billion for the agency, 14 percent below last year's budget and nearly 23 percent below President Clinton's request. In addition, the conference bill deprives the agency of final veto power over the dumping of potentially hazardous materials into wetlands and weakens community right-to-know rules.

To Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who has guided the EPA budget through the House, the cut sends the agency a message: Reduce burdensome regulations. To Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, who has led the Senate effort, the cut is a byproduct of efforts to balance the budget and forces EPA to set priorities.

But to William Ruckelshaus, the agency's founding director, by taking a meat axe to the EPA's budget, Congress is in danger of perpetuating the very problems it is trying to solve. He acknowledges the agency's progress in cleaning the air and water. But in an interview, Mr. Ruckelshaus - currently chairman of the board of Browning-Ferris Industries, a waste-management company - points to what he sees as key organizational problems beyond limited agency funding.

He says EPA's troubles - a lack of public trust, slow progress in cleaning up waste sites, and horror stories of agency bureaucrats tromping on "the little guy" - are largely of Congress's making. They won't be solved, he says, until lawmakers give the EPA a clear, unified assignment and the authority and flexibility to carry it out.

"I'm not defending any particular level of expenditure," Ruckelshaus says, "because it depends on what you're spending the money for." Yet lawmakers "are telling the agency not to do what a previous Congress has told it to do, or they're saying, 'We're not going to give you enough money to do what we earlier told you to do.' The sensible thing is to say, 'We're going to change your assignment, and we're going to give you more authority to decide within that assignment what's most important.' "

Ruckelshaus, whom President Nixon appointed as EPA's first administrator in 1970, concedes that giving the EPA more authority runs counter to the inclinations of the Republican Congress. He holds, however, that the agency's excesses can be traced to both its friends and its foes, leading to the wide swings in support on Capitol Hill during EPA's 25-year history. Its friends, worried about what would happen if leadership of the agency fell into "unfriendly" hands, wrote a dozen laws - from the Clean Air Act to the Superfund legislation - that spell out the agency's tasks in minute detail and set what he sees as often unrealistic timetables. …