EPA: Environment Getting Cleaner, Safer

Published August 1, 2003

Christie Whitman’s departure from the leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was marked by one of the few really outstanding accomplishments of her tenure. During her final week on the job, Whitman released EPA’s Draft Report on the Environment–an accurate and up-to-date account of the dramatic improvement in air and water quality in the U.S.

A Compromise Candidate

Whitman, whose record as governor of New Jersey placed her to the left of the Republican mainstream, was a compromise candidate for President George W. Bush, who felt he needed an EPA administrator who would not be a lightning rod for environmental zealots.

Whitman had a mediocre record on the environment during her term as governor of New Jersey–which meant she pleased no one, and that evidently qualified her for the EPA job in the convoluted thinking of political strategists. True to form, Whitman pleased no one at EPA … until the very end, when she allowed her agency to come clean about the environment.

Until the Draft Report on the Environment, EPA under Whitman had supported or remained silent on every doom-and-gloom scenario trumpeted by the liberal environmentalists. Rather than stand up for sound science and defend her own agency’s record, Whitman repeatedly catered to and appeased the professional environmental advocates whose primary business is to scare the public into giving them money.

“Good and Getting Better”

EPA’s new report gathered data from nearly every agency of the federal government, most states, and many Indian nations. It proves, beyond doubt, the truth of what Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been saying since his own research turned him around: “Our environment is good and getting better all the time.”

  • Air pollution in the U.S. has fallen 25 percent over the past 30 years–despite dramatic increases in the number of people and automobiles here and a significantly larger economy. More than 80 percent of U.S. metropolitan areas boast continuously improving air quality: Air quality standard violations were down 70 percent in 2001 from the figure recorded in 1988.
  • Toxic chemical releases are down 50 percent in the past 15 years. Cleanups are underway at more than half of our worst toxic waste sites.
  • Only 4.3 percent of the nation’s available land has been developed. Over the three decades covered by EPA’s report, the country has experienced no net loss of forest acreage. Forests currently cover 33 percent of the United States, and nearly a million net acres are added to that forest cover every year.
  • In the Great Lakes region, the number of bald eagle nests has increased sevenfold–from 50 in 1961 to 366 when last counted in 2000. Old mining ponds across the country–once highly contaminated and fit for neither man nor beast–now commonly are excellent fishing holes.

Who Gets the Credit?

This is not to say the job of environmental cleanup, effectively launched with EPA’s creation in 1971, is complete. Indeed, environment protection by its very definition can never end, and advances can still be achieved.

For example, 6 percent of the U.S. population has substandard drinking water. Nearly one-third of our surface stream miles are not quite fishable and swimmable, which was the goal of the initial Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (now amended and called the Clean Water Act).

But the bottom line remains: Our nation has never in its history had a cleaner environment, nor one that was progressing at such a positive rate.

Do liberal environmentalists admit any of this? Only very rarely … and when they do, they give 100 percent of the credit to command-and-control government policies and their own incessant, time-consuming, self-serving lawsuits.

In fact, the environmental success story Whitman reported is due to the efforts of countless U.S. citizens working to improve every aspect of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live upon. Our environment has prospered because we as a nation have prospered, giving us discretionary income to spend on things beyond the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.

Around the world, there is a readily identifiable, direct correlation between economic output and expenditures on environmental improvement. Nothing shows this better than the environmental disasters prevalent throughout the old Soviet Union, when socialism failed both the people and their environment.

Today, a strong case can be made that the anti-capitalist environmental lobby is impeding environmental progress rather than encouraging it. Terribly counterproductive laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and wetland amendments to our water laws, have served only to endanger our freedoms and undercut honest efforts to preserve species and wetlands alike.

What we need now is a free-market environmental strategy that rewards good deeds rather than punishing what the liberal environmentalists and their representatives in government see as misdeeds. Congress is beginning to see the wisdom of this approach, with numerous programs underway to empower people to help protect our environment and encourage industries to reduce emissions even further and put brownfields to productive use.

EPA’s Draft Report on the Environment must find its way to the reading list of every thinking American. If it gets wide distribution, Administrator Whitman’s term in office will have been a bigger success than any of us might have imagined.

Dr. Jay Lehr is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The full 167-page text of EPA’s Draft Report on the Environment, meant for “general reading,” and the 453-page Technical Document, which presents the “scientific foundation” for EPA’s conclusions, are available on the EPA Web site at http://www.epa.gov/indicators/roe/html/roePDF.htm.

To receive a print-out of the Draft Report by mail, send $7.00, payable to The Heartland Institute, 19 South LaSalle Street #903, Chicago, IL 60603.