The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, promised during her confirmation hearing to base agency policies and decisions on science, not politics: “If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide, ” she said. “Political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA’s technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.”
There are two reasons for skepticism. First, the EPA has long been a haven for zealots in career positions and for scientifically insupportable policies, so it has little integrity to compromise. It has a sordid history of incompetence, duplicity, and pandering to the most extreme factions of the environmental movement, all of which are likely to become even worse during the Obama administration. Second, Ms. Jackson herself is a veteran of 16 years at the EPA, during which she developed some of the agency’s most unscientific, wasteful, and dangerous regulations.
While at the EPA, Ms. Jackson worked on Superfund (officially the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), an ongoing EPA program intended to clean up and reduce the risk of toxic-waste sites. This program was originally conceived as a short-term project–$1.6 billion over five years to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has grown into one of the nation’s largest public-works projects: more than $30 billion spent on about 1,300 sites. Various studies have attempted to evaluate the effect of Superfund’s massive and costly cleanups, but the results are uncertain. Putting that another way, no beneficial results have been demonstrable after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars. On the other hand, Superfund projects have caused a great deal of harm.
UC-Davis medical economist J. Paul Leigh has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup projects. He concluded that the risks of fatality to cleanup workers–a dump-truck driver involved in a collision or a laborer run over by a bulldozer, for example–are considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposures to unremediated sites.
Even former EPA Administrator William Reilly admitted that Superfund’s risk-assessment methods are flawed. In a speech at Stanford University while a visiting lecturer, he discussed the excessive costs of basing cleanups on exaggerated worst-case scenarios:
The risks [Superfund] addresses are worst-case, hypothetical present and future risks to the maximum exposed individual, i.e., one who each day consumes two liters of water contaminated by hazardous waste. The program at one time aimed to achieve a risk range in its cleanups adequate to protect the child who regularly ate liters of dirt. . . . And it formerly assumed that all sites, once cleaned up, would be used for residential development, even though many lie within industrial zones. Some of these assumptions have driven clean-up costs to stratospheric levels and, together with liabilities associated with Superfund sites, have resulted in inner-city sites suitable for redevelopment remaining derelict and unproductive.
In his excellent book Breaking the Vicious Circle, written shortly before he became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Stephen Breyer cites another, similar example of expensive, non-cost-effective regulation by the EPA: a ban on asbestos pipe, shingles, coating, and paper, which the most optimistic estimates suggested would prevent seven or eight premature deaths over 13 years–at a cost of approximately a quarter of a billion dollars. Breyer notes that such a vast expenditure can be expected to cause more deaths than it would prevent from the asbestos exposure, simply by reducing the resources available for other public amenities. Also, perversely, the very act of removing asbestos from existing structures poses greater risk from asbestos than simply leaving it where it is: During removal, long-dormant asbestos fibers are spread into the ambient air, where they expose workers and bystanders to heightened risk.
When the EPA banned asbestos in 1989, it was already an old product whose risks and benefits were well understood. Nevertheless, political pressures from environmental activists pushed the EPA to make a decision that turned out to be risk-increasing.
The EPA has long been more concerned with public relations than public health. An EPA scheme that was exposed in 2005 planned to divert research funds to pay outside public-relations consultants up to $5 million over five years to improve the website of its Office of Research and Development, conduct focus groups on how to polish the office’s image, and produce ghostwritten articles praising the agency “for publication in scholarly journals and magazines.”
It’s no surprise that EPA must buy good press. The agency is relentlessly inept and corrupt, and motivated by radical ideology rather than a genuine desire to protect the environment. It serves not the public interest, but the most extreme and doctrinaire environmentalists.
The EPA’s payola scheme is similar to the agency’s longstanding practice of buying influence by doling out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to non-profit organizations–money that, according to the inspector general and Government Accountability Office, is dispersed with no public notice, competition, or accountability. Specifically, they documented systematic malfeasance by regulators, including: (1) making grants to grantees who were unable to carry out the terms of the grants; (2) favoring an exclusive clique of grantees without opening the grants to competition; (3) funding “environmental” grants for activities that lack any apparent environmental benefit; and (4) failing to ensure that grantees performed the objectives identified in the grants.
Misconduct, mendacity, and conflicts of interest are just business as usual at the EPA. Even if Ms. Jackson were serious about bringing integrity and sound science to EPA, she would certainly be thwarted by Carol Browner, who will coordinate environmental policy throughout the government. An Al Gore acolyte who was EPA Administrator during the Clinton administration. Ms. Browner was the scourge of American innovation and technology. She never met a regulation she didn’t like, no matter how costly or worthless, and she permitted politics and pressure from environmental groups to make the EPA arguably the most scientifically challenged regulatory agency on the planet.
On her watch, for example, new regulatory policies toward the use of biotechnology were disastrous. Contrary to scientific consensus (and to what was supposed to be overarching federal policy), the agency imposed stultifying regulation on the use of the newest, most precise, most predictable gene-splicing techniques, thereby obstructing research on organisms for toxic-waste cleanup and others that could provide alternatives to agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. The EPA’s bizarre regulation of garden and crop plants as pesticides elicited condemnation from eleven scientific societies representing 80,000 biologists and food-science professionals, and a blue-ribbon panel convened by Browner herself accused the agency of abusing the mechanisms whereby it obtains external scientific advice and of adjusting science to fit policy instead of the other way around.
Obama’s elevation of Jackson and Browner exemplifies a venerable government tradition: No bad deed goes unrewarded.
–Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was an official at the NIH and FDA from 1977 to 1994. His most recent book is The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution.