The Environmental Aristocracy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Environmental Aristocracy


When the Environmental Protection Agency sued a Virginia hog farm for alleged pollution violations, agency officials announced they were going after more than just Smithfield Farms Inc.; they wanted to embarrass Gov. George Allen as well as the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1997, state Attorney General Jim Gilmore. Said EPA's W. Michael McCabe, "Normally the federal government does not jump in unless the state's not doing the job."

As it happens, the state had already filed suit against Smithfield. The feds' belated suit looks more like retaliation for Virginia's earlier complaints about EPA inaction regarding pollution at the District's Blue Plains plant. A spokesman for Smithfield says the company feels like "a pork chop between two dogs."

An article in the latest issue of the Cato Institute's Regulation magazine provides a fascinating backdrop to this duel, although it focuses on government in general rather than this case in particular. EPA won't like it, but anyone who cares about the environment should read it.

David Schoenbrod, former senior attorney for the activist Natural Resources Defense Council and now a professor at the New York Law School, argues that the "nationalization," or federal control, of environmental policy is "both radical and recent." Up until the 1970s, state and local officials handled environmental regulation, but all that changed as a result of two social phenomena.

First came the "panic" of the late '60s and early '70s, in which the feds found themselves at war not just with the North Vietnamese but with poverty, racism and, yes, pollution. The argument for nationalizing the fight against environmental degradation was that the feds could handle interstate pollution better than the states themselves.

A flurry of national legislation followed - Clean Air, Clean Water and so on - that allowed the feds to declare victory. But, as Mr. Schoenbrod quotes Brookings Institution scholar Robert Crandall, EPA's claim of environmental progress is "mostly religious sentiment." Rather than focusing on interstate pollution problems, the agency took on the job of intrastate pollution. In the end, it claimed credit for what state officials had already been accomplishing. The second phenomenon that Mr. Schoenbrod cites is the rise of what one sociologist has called the "national class," which was both elitist and antidemocratic. …

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