It’s Time to Restore EPA’s Original Purpose

Published August 14, 2013

In 1968, when I was serving as the head of a groundwater professional society, it became obvious to some of my colleagues and me that the United States did not have any serious focus on potential problems with its air quality, drinking water quality, surface water quality, waste disposal problems, and contamination that could occur from mining and agriculture. I held the nation’s first Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology, which gave me unparalleled insight into many of these potential problems.

We spoke before dozens of congressional committees, calling attention to mounting environmental pollution problems. We called for the establishment of a federal Environmental Protection Agency, and in 1971 we succeeded. I was appointed to a variety of the new agency’s advisory councils, and over the next 10 years we helped write a variety of legislative bills to make up a true safety net for our environment. These included, among others, the Water Pollution Control Act (later renamed the Clean Water Act); the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act; the Clean Air Act; the Federal Insecticide, Rodenticide, and Fungicide Act; and the Comprehensive Environmental Reclamation, Compensation, and Liability Act.

All of these laws worked extremely well in protecting the environment and our citizens’ health, with the exception of the Superfund Law, which proved to be far too overreaching.

Agenda-Driven Turning Point
A turning point occurred roughly a decade after the creation of EPA. Activist groups realized the agency could be used to alter our government by coming down heavily on all human activities regardless of their impact on the environment. From approximately 1981 onward, EPA rules and regulations became less about science-based environmental protection and more about advancing extraneous ideological agendas.

States Ready
It is my very strong belief that most EPA jurisdiction and functions can and should be replaced by a committee of the whole of the 50 state environmental protection agencies. Each of the individual states have its own environmental protection department, and these are much better at assessing and crafting solutions to local and regional environmental issues than the federal EPA. At the national level, a committee of the whole would do a much better job directing environmental stewardship than the money-hungry and power-hungry federal EPA.

Back in 1971, a federal EPA was necessary because the states did not have environmental protection departments. Now, however, with state environmental departments already providing on-the-ground environmental protection throughout the 50 states, EPA has morphed into an overpowering entity that arrogantly dictates to the 50 states while doing everything possible to protect its power and regulatory turf.

The 50 state agencies are ready to assume full management of our environmental issues. The state agencies already do so, with many states enacting and enforcing environmental rules more stringent than those crafted by EPA. Only the EPA research laboratories should be left in place to answer scientific questions, no longer under the heavy hand of Washington politics.

Workable Phase-Out Plan
We could eliminate 80 percent of EPA’s bloated $8 billion budget and return the money to the people. The remaining 20 percent could be used to fund EPA’s research labs and pull together a committee of the 50 state environmental protection departments to take over EPA’s other responsibilities.

A relatively small administrative structure is all that is necessary to enable the states to work together. The states would have the incentive and the means to act as environmental stewards without the power to impose scientifically unjustified, economically punitive restrictions on a national basis.

We could phase out EPA in five years. It would take one year to prepare the new structure and then four years to phase out the various EPA bureaucracy and programs. As each EPA program is phased out, the committee of the whole would assume the phased-out oversight and responsibilities.

Committee of the Whole Responsibilities
The committee of the whole would quickly determine which regulations are actually mandated in law by Congress and which were crafted under EPA discretion. The committee would then reassess discretionary regulations to ensure wise ones are retained and unwise strictures are revised or repealed. A good procedure for reviewing EPA regulations would require a two-thirds vote of the committee of the whole to revise or repeal an existing EPA regulation.

Environmental stewardship would continue unabated, but without the severe negative consequences resulting from EPA arrogance and overreach.

Until and unless the committee of the whole acts upon an existing regulation, each regulation will remain in force. Therefore, all existing environmental rules and regulations are presumed wise and valid unless the states determine otherwise.

When one considers the initial motivation for creating a federal EPA, a committee of the whole 50 states makes perfect sense as a forward-looking means of ensuring wise and appropriate environmental stewardship. The states are in the best position to assess and address environmental concerns within their respective borders, and a committee of the whole can effectively address environmental issues that are regional or national in nature.

The easy path is the path of least resistance. The easy path is to continue funding and granting increasing power to an out-of-control federal EPA. A wiser path is to recognize that the individual states are ready and willing to provide more commonsense environmental protection.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.