Scientist 14:39, Sep. 18, 2000
Environmental Protection, in Name Only
By Henry I. Miller
A proposal to create a senior scientist position
at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is winning support from
Congress. In June, a National Academy of Sciences panel recommended
creating the position to bolster EPA's use of science, and at a House
subcommittee hearing this summer, U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.)
announced that he was preparing legislation to create the deputy-level
(agency head) science position. "Scientists need more clout," he said.
But EPA needs more than Ehlers' remedies, which are like trying to stop
a charging rhino with a pea shooter. In fact, a similar strategem failed
miserably earlier in the tenure of EPA chief Carol Browner. What has never
been addressed is the fundamental problem that adherence to scientific
principles in the formulation of policy has long been alien to EPA's
An expert panel commissioned by then-EPA administrator William Reilly
reported in 1992 that:
* "The science advice function--that is, the process of ensuring that
policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of the relevant
science--is not well defined or coherently organized within EPA."
* "In many cases, appropriate science advice and information are not
considered early or often enough in the decision making process."
* While "EPA should be a source of unbiased scientific information, EPA
has not always ensured that contrasting, reputable scientific views are
well-explored and well-documented." And most damning of all, that
* "EPA science is perceived by many people, both inside and outside the
Agency, to be adjusted to fit policy. Such 'adjustments' could be made
consciously or unconsciously by the scientist or the decision-maker."
EPA and Science
In an effort to elevate EPA's scientific profile, in 1989 the agency
had brought on board former National Institutes of Health deputy director
William Raub as the senior science advisor. Raub was known to be a smart,
savvy, and collegial scientific administrator. Nonetheless, the EPA staff
proceeded to make his life miserable. From the beginning, they ignored him
when they could. When they couldn't, they sent him drafts of important
documents too late for a meaningful review--often just days before a
court-ordered deadline for an agency action. Instead of disciplining those
responsible, EPA administrator Browner excluded Raub from her inner circle
and finally replaced him in 1995 with a less- threatening lower-level EPA
The tradition continues. Under mounting pressure from environmental
groups to ignore the recommendation of the agency's own scientists,
Browner last December scrapped a science-based standard for chloroform in
drinking water. In 1998, EPA had proposed raising the Maximum Contaminant
Level Goal for chloroform in drinking water from zero to 300 parts per
billion. This recommendation had resulted from a thorough review by EPA
scientists of toxicological data on human exposure to chloroform going
back 20 years, and took into account the principle contained in the
agency's draft cancer guidelines that there are thresholds below which
toxins are essentially harmless. But the recommendation was to become the
victim of political sabotage, and the agency instead retained a "zero
tolerance" rule. In April of this year, however, a federal court rejected
EPA's proposed standard, saying that the proposal was contradicted by the
agency's own review of the "best available science."
The courts often have had to restrain or educate EPA officials. In May
1999, for example, a federal court ruled that EPA's draconian new air
quality standards were arbitrary and capricious and had to be revised. In
May of this year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on EPA's
deliberately disregarding the cost of its regulations as required by the
Clean Air Act. As argued in an amicus brief filed July 21 by a public
policy research institution and 40 prominent economists, the EPA should
"consider explicitly the full consequences" of regulatory decisions,
including costs, benefits, and any other pertinent facts.
Superfund, the program directed at clean-up of toxic wastes, is a
continuing disaster. After he left EPA, agency chief William Reilly
admitted as much, saying that unscientific assumptions about risk "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." The
result has been "to impose a drag on urban redevelopment in the inner
city, and to push new industry to locate in pristine, outlying sites."
EPA and Biotechnology
Finally, the EPA has attacked biotechnology on several fronts.
Consistently adopting unscientific approaches, agency oversight focuses on
the most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology while
ignoring genuinely hazardous products. These policies have been a drag on
innovation. A regulation under the Toxic Substances Control Act focused
only on the most precise techniques of the new biotechnology, for example,
has halted most research into gene-spliced microorganisms that might be
used to clean up oil spills and toxic wastes.
And the agency is expected any day to issue a final regulation that
requires the testing as pesticides of gene-spliced crop and garden plants
such as corn, cotton, wheat, and marigolds that have been modified for
enhanced pest or disease resistance. The policy fails to recognize that
there is a difference between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals and
genetic approaches to enhancing plants' natural pest and disease
EPA's policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms
that it has galvanized the scientific community: Eleven major scientific
societies representing more than 80,000 biologists and food professionals
published a report warning that the EPA policy would discourage the
development of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use
of synthetic chemical pesticides; increase the regulatory burden for
developers of pest-resistant crops; limit the use of biotechnology to
larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs; and handicap
the United States in competition for international markets.
"Science at EPA," a voluminous book published last year by Resources
for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, carefully dissects
eight major regulatory programs of the past two decades. It makes the case
that the science behind the policy often gets distorted or ignored: "EPA
for a variety of reasons is unwilling, unable, and unequipped to address
and acknowledge the uncertainties in the underlying science."
Why this sellout of citizens' interests? It is an example of the
"bootleggers and Baptists" parable of regulation, first described by
economist Bruce Yandle. In the South, Sunday closing laws make it illegal
to sell alcohol on Sunday. These laws are maintained by an inadvertent
coalition of bootleggers and Baptists. The Baptists (and other religious
denominations) provide the public outcry against liquor on Sunday, while
the bootleggers (who actually sell liquor illegally on Sunday at inflated
prices) quietly persuade legislatures and town councils to maintain the
closing laws that make their exorbitant profits possible.
Environmental regulation is similar. The "Baptists" are the coalition
of government regulators and radical environmental groups that promote
unnecessary regulation, allegedly on grounds of safety concerns; the
"bootleggers" are the big agribusiness companies that profit when their
competition is stifled by excessive regulation. The environmental groups
have long been closely allied with EPA, particularly during Carol
Browner's tenure, and have been the recipients of generous grants from the
agency. Some of the big agribusiness companies have benefited from EPA's
excesses that can create market entry barriers to smaller competitors.
This arrangement reeks of conflicts of interest.
Many of EPA's regulatory programs are unscientific and illogical and
afford little or no protection to human health or the environment. They
have unacceptably huge costs and divert resources from other legitimate
public and private sector endeavors. They breed well-deserved cynicism
about government's motives. Often, the only environment that benefits is
that of the bureaucrats themselves.
Fixing EPA will require much more sweeping and fundamental changes than
are currently being discussed. These could range from the creation of an
ombudsman panel with the power to impose sanctions on EPA officials who
collaborate on unscientific policies to dismantling EPA and redistributing
its few essential functions to less scientifically challenged agencies.
Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an adjunct
scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is the author of To
America's Health: A Proposal to Reform the FDA, Stanford, Calif.,
Hoover Institute Press, 2000. From 1979-94, he was an official at the Food
and Drug Administration.
Scientist 14:39, Sep. 18, 2000