EPA's Strategic Revolution: New Initiatives to 'Take Aim before Shooting.' (Environmental Protection Agency's Plan to Control 15 Toxic Chemicals)

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EPA's Strategic Revolution

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a major new goal on Sept. 26 for controlling the 15 toxic chemicals posing the greatest threats to health in the United States. The agency now proposes to cut U.S. environmental releases of these chemicals by one-third within the next two years, and by 1995 it expects to have limited their allowed releases to less than half of current levels.

Though EPA officials are still sifting through candidates for their list of toxic enemies #1 through 15, they already anticipate that the magnitude of the curtailed releases will be quite large: an estimated 500 million pounds annually within five years. Moreover, says EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, the new initiative seeks to control these chemicals wherever they're found--a departure from the agency's traditional approach of focusing specifically on air, land or water pollution and tackling only the most concentrated sources of toxic emissions, such as the individual industrial polluters that release tons of wastes per year.

The toxics initiative is just one of several ambitious measures Reilly previewed at the September briefing. Such plans, he asserts, reflect a fundamental change in EPA's strategy for targeting problems. For the first time, EPA will now begin directing the discretionary portion of its budget toward the most efficient means of attacking what it deems the most serious environmental threats, designing controls that will encourage "the most cost-effective methods possible," he says. Ultimately, he adds, this change in posture may lead to an overhaul of EPA's research and regulatory agenda.

The game plan may not sound revolutionary, but for EPA it is, Reilly says. He acknowledges that in the 20 years since the agency's creation, EPA's efforts have seldom reached beyond enacting rules to correct problems already identified by congressional legislation.

"Rarely did we evaluate the relative importance of individual chemicals or individual environmental media," he says. "We didn't assess the combined effects on ecosystems and human health from the total loadings of pollutants deposited through different media, through separate routes of exposure, and at various locations."

Reilly likens EPA's former approach to a video game called Space Invaders. "Every time we saw a blip [an environmental problem specified by Congress] on the radar screen, we unleashed an arsenal of control measures to eliminate it," he says. In Space Invaders, the yardsticks of success are time and casualties, not bang for the buck. Because gunners "never run out of ammunition," Reilly says, they have little incentive to take careful aim before blasting at every enemy in sight with both barrels.

But in the real world of budget deficits, trade deficits, tax revolts and recession rumors, ammunition is a metered commodity. And so, says Reilly, "I think the time has come [at EPA] to start taking aim before we open fire."

The strategy shift follows criticisms leveled at the agency by its own science advisory board. Just days before Reilly announced the new initiatives, this panel of outside experts presented him a set of sweeping new policy recommendations.

The board began with an evaluation of "Unfinished Business" -- EPA's most recent internal "report card," prepared by agency staffers and widely publicized in 1987. "Unfinished Business" attempted to rank the nation's most important unresolved environmental problems, largely on the basis of the risks they posed. To many EPA program leaders and outside researchers, the 1987 document's biggest contribution lay in differentiating for the first time which issues were most important to EPA managers and which seemed most important to Congress, as evidenced by how much money the lawmakers appropriated for them. "The major conclusion [of 'Unfinished Business']," says an EPA insider who requested anonymity, "was that there was no inherent relationship between what EPA deemed important and what most money was being spent on. …