Environmental Mandates: The Impact on Local Government

Article excerpt


The increasing role of the federal government within environmental protection activities over the last 20-plus years has resulted in substantial improvement in the overall quality of the United States environment. As stated recently by the President's Council on Environmental Quality, "Perhaps the greatest progress has been made in controlling air and water pollution where concentrations of many pollutants are showing measurable decline. Emissions of total suspended particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and lead from various sources have been reduced in the past decade as a result of pollution controls. Concentrations of suspended solids, oxygen-demanding wastes, and phosphorus are declining in many waterways. There has been a marked reduction in environmental levels of DDT and other persistent organchlorine pesticides; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB); vinyl chloride; benzene; asbestos; and mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. Concentrations of these and other chemicals in human and wildlife tissues have also declined. Although pollutant loads are being reduced, they are being dispersed over long distances and deposited hundreds of miles away from the source" (1).

To further document this improvement, consider the results made in regards to the Clean Air Act of 1970, where the national standards for the six primary air pollutants achieved that as displayed in Table 1.

Environmental improvement has been realized through concerted efforts of all levels of government and the private sector and were principally achieved through an environmental "command and control" policy. Such a policy specifies the type of pollution control technology and limits the pollutants discharged. In the 1970s and very early 1980s, the impact of such policy on local and state governments and their taxpayers was minimal because a large percentage of the additional costs borne by the state and local governments was reimbursed by the federal government (either by financial incentives and/or outright grants). No similar federal assistance was provided to the private sector for their requirements.

"Command and control" environmental policy is cost effective where large point sources are the major polluters. However, the cost benefit of this approach is questionable, especially as more and more reduction is desired. The latter is especially true when the control technologies utilized are incorporated into a "one size fits all" control, often developed for use in mountainous areas of the west as well as swamps in the southeastern part of the United States. Uniform "command and control" systems do not allow for flexibility by local communities to achieve the most environmental benefit for the expenditure of their limited tax dollars.

The remainder of this article explains the significant changes in relationship that has occurred between the local, state, and federal levels of governments in the area of environmental regulation and analyzes the possible ramifications for local governments in the future if this relationship continues.

Changing Federal/Local Government Relationship

Significant changes are occurring in the relationship between the federal, state, and local government bodies. To understand these changes, it is important to look at the evolving regulatory and funding patterns of the federal government as they impact state and local governments.

The first major area to examine the changing role of the federal government is in the area of preemptions of state and local laws and regulations. The roles of all levels of government were initially established by the Constitution of the United States and was further reinforced by the Tenth Amendment, which states that the powers not explicitly given to the federal government were reserved to the states or to the people.

Table 1. National Standards for the Six Primary Air Pollutants. …