An Empirical Examination of Innovations in Integrated Environmental Management: The Case of the Great Lakes Basin

By Rabe, Barry G. | Public Administration Review, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

An Empirical Examination of Innovations in Integrated Environmental Management: The Case of the Great Lakes Basin


Rabe, Barry G., Public Administration Review


The American commitment to environmental protection has grown markedly in recent decades, whether measured by public opinion surveys or the amount of money devoted to protection activities. Environmental issues have steadily climbed as an area of widespread public concern, reflected in their growing prominence on the agendas of federal, state, and local governments. In turn, this interest is also reflected in fiscal terms, as a nation which devoted less than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to environment-related matters in 1970 is expected to allocate more than 2.5 percent of GDP to such concerns by 2000.

This dramatic expansion of concern and investment has not, however, been translated into significant improvements in environmental quality. Some successes have been achieved, but these have been eclipsed by a series of problems that were not effectively addressed at the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created and much decisive legislation was enacted at the federal and state levels in the late 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps foremost among these environmental problems is pervasive toxics contamination.

Numerous explanations can be advanced for the failure of past efforts to achieve greater environmental improvement, but one of the most convincing is the problem of regulatory fragmentation and its perverse environmental effects. This fragmentation divides regulatory policy into distinct spheres by medium (air, water, and land), often establishing separate approaches and management systems. Increasing evidence from the physical sciences indicates that this fragmentation has had the perverse effect of merely shifting pollutants - including pervasive toxics - from medium to medium rather than addressing them in any comprehensive manner. Consequently, many of the nation's most serious environmental problems may not stem from illegal dumping of wastes or failure to enforce individual permit standards. Instead, the irony is that much of the problem may be attributable to medium-based pollution control strategies created and implemented by federal and state governments. A similar dynamic is evident in Canada, where both federal and provincial environmental policies tend to be modeled closely after their American predecessors (Hoberg, 1991).

The extent of this problem is well illustrated by the massive ecosystem encompassed in the Great Lakes Basin, which will be the major focal point of this article. Massive efforts to reduce major point source emissions, supported by the Clean Water Act, have led to some genuine improvements in Basin water quality, albeit at a very high cost. But the entire Basin remains highly vulnerable to the effects of cross-media pollution. It is on the receiving end of numerous air toxics; has extensive commercial, agricultural, and recreational activity that contribute "nonpoint" pollution to Basin water; and has a long "residence time" for water before it circulates out of the Basin (Alder, Landman, and Cameron, 1993; Elder et al., 1989). Air deposition accounts for more than 80 percent of many of the most threatening organic compounds found in the Great Lakes (Colborn et al., 1990). Further surface water contamination derives from groundwater discharge, landfill leaching, pesticide runoff from farmland, and dredging of lake-bottom sediments contaminated by prior dumping, all of which further compound the problems facing the Basin. Such problems are not unique to this region, as other North American ecosystems, such as the Chesapeake Bay, are similarly endangered by cross-media pollution (Horton and Eichbaum, 1991). Nonetheless, the diverse and expansive geographic scope of the Great Lakes Basin effectively illustrates the larger phenomenon of cross-media pollution within a medium-based regulatory system that often becomes a vehicle (witting or otherwise) for cross-media "transfer, transport, or transformation" (Irwin, 1989).

The existence of this cross-media problem is not a new discovery. …

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