What's Wrong with the Way the Environmental Protection Agency Is Being Run-And What Can Be Done to Fix It

By Lewis, Jori | E Magazine, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

What's Wrong with the Way the Environmental Protection Agency Is Being Run-And What Can Be Done to Fix It


Lewis, Jori, E Magazine


Something is wrong at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In recent years, there have been congressional investigations into political collusion with chemical industry forces, outcry about the quiet closure of EPA libraries and a steady stream of high-level agency officials filing out the door in protest. All of this has damaged the credibility of the agency, says Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

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"I could do a catalog of every thing from global warming to prescription drugs in the water to inadequate toxic clean up and you could go on and on," Ruch says, in reference to the EPA's enforcement failures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bush administration's challenges to the Clean Air Act. The current EPA has established smog standards that fall short of scientific recommendations, attempted to ease restrictions on industrial pollution and tap-danced around its ability to regulate greenhouse gases. In case after case, federal courts have sided with environmentalists and lawmakers against Bush's EPA.

"What has been most remarkable," says Vickie Patton, the deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, "is the extent to which the judiciary has provided a very unmistakable check on the EPA's policies, [policies] that have really strained the nation's clean air laws in ways that Congress never intended."

Take the mercury emissions case. Mercury is a persistent neurotoxin that can find its way from fish to humans, where it can cause myriad health problems. Regulations under the Clean Air Act mandated stringent controls--some would have reduced mercury emissions by 90%. In 2005, the EPA passed a regulation that would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions by only 70% and use a cap-and-trade system that would allow cleaner plants to trade unused emissions.

"These rules came right out of the White House;' says Dr. Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). She says that EPA scientists were told to come up with the data to justify such a change in policy. "Their own inspector general at the EPA found that EPA scientists were pressured to change their analyses and their findings to agree with a predetermined value for a national cap on mercury emissions."

A federal court ruled in February that the new rules don't go as far they should to protect the public from mercury.

Grifo says this is an egregious example, but one that is hardly unique in Bush's EPA. There have been tales of suppressed research; of reports kept in draft form so they don't have to be released to the public; and of political retaliation for those who stray off message.

Political Squeeze

Mary Gade, a lifelong Republican, was, until May, the Midwestern regional administrator of the EPA. She told the Chicago Tribune that she was forced to resign after contentious negotiations with Dow Chemical about cleaning up a dioxin-contaminated site near the company's Michigan headquarters. Later, a federal court mandated cleanup, but Gade was long gone.

Grifo says that for years the UCS has been hearing anecdotes about scientific tampering and marginalization at the agency, so they sent EPA scientists a questionnaire to "take the pulse of the agency." The results were released earlier this year--and it's a picture of an EPA, she says, that is coming down against science, against enforcement and, essentially, against itself.

Of the nearly 1,600 respondents, over half of them cited at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years. Some is to be expected. PEER, which Ruch describes as "a shelter for battered staff," has been fielding complaints from whistleblower public employees at agencies like the EPA and the Department of the Interior for more than a decade. …

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