The Elusive Middle Ground in Environmental Policy

Article excerpt

Although Republican bills go way too far, major changes in the nation's environmental laws are long overdue.

Forewarned isn't always fore-armed. Despite numerous warnings last year, the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to prepare themselves for what has now become the most critical challenge to health, safety, and environmental regulation of the past 25 years: the effort by the new Republican Congress to make many proposed regulations subject to sweeping new risk-assessment and cost-benefit analyses.

During the past few years, risk assessment has jostled its way into the limelight of congressional attention. Both friends and foes of EPA acknowledge that regulatory demands to reduce already minuscule amounts of risk have grown exponentially, while funding struggles to keep up. State and local officials, business leaders, academics, and environmentalists have pressed EPA to use risk assessment as a tool for rationalizing its regulations. Time and again in the last Congress, risk-reform proposals won strong bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate.

Greater efforts to find middle ground last year might have assuaged eager reformers. But the Clinton administration and its top environmental official, EPA administrator Carol M. Browner, have until recently remained largely aloof from the debate. As a result, last year's momentum has become this year's juggernaut. The Republican proposals would radically alter the nation's regulatory system. If the worst predictions are right, the proposed laws could cast aside many of the successes of environmental policymaking during the past two and a half decades. This would be unfortunate, because a path can clearly be seen to a genuinely bipartisan middle ground, one that would provide reasonable protection of public health and the environment while removing many of the inflexibilities and idiocies of the current system.

A "modest" proposal

On February 28, 1995, the House passed the Risk Assessment and Cost-Benefit Act of 1995 (H.R. 1022), which would establish specific guidelines for a broad range of agencies, including EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The guidelines require regulatory agencies to follow specific procedures to assess, characterize, and communicate risks. EPA has often relied on unrealistic worst-case assumptions in calculating risks-for instance, that an individual exposed to a particular air pollutant inhales it 24 hours a day for 70 years. The agency also uses a single numeric estimate to characterize a particular risk, rather than showing the range of possible adverse outcomes. A young healthy person may be less susceptible to a specific toxin than an older person or someone with particular health problems. By reducing the range of potential risks to a single figure, the agency tends to offer more absolute appraisals than are warranted.

The House bill provides a very detailed process for assessing risk, including greater reliance on independent scientific peer review. It requires agencies to characterize risks in terms of the range of possible effects and to communicate risks in terms that the average person can understand-specifically, by comparing the risk presented by one pollutant or activity to three risks with which the public is familiar (such as the risk of dying in a plane crash) and with the risks associated with three pollutants or activities already regulated by the agency. The bill would also force regulatory agencies to explain more clearly the underlying science on which policy decisions are based and make clear any gaps or uncertainties in the information available.

Next (and this is the more radical step) the bill states that the benefits of federal regulations, measured in health, environmental, social, and economic terms, must outweigh their costs. Right now, most environmental statutes require regulations to be based solely on considerations of potential damage to health or ecological systems, and they explicitly exclude cost-benefit balancing as a criterion for adoption. …