No Global Environmental Disasters: an Exclusive Interview with Environmental Optimist Jay Lehr

Published April 1, 1999

Dr. Jay Lehr received the nation’s first PhD in ground water hydrology from the University of Arizona in 1962, following a degree in geological engineering from Princeton University and a few years’ stint in the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps in the Western Pacific.

After graduate school, Lehr taught at the University of Arizona and The Ohio State University before serving 25 years as head of the Association of Ground Water Scientists and Engineers, where he was editor of the Journal of Ground Water and Ground Water Monitoring Review. During that period, Lehr continued to perform academic-sponsored research in many areas of environmental science.

From 1968 through 1982, Lehr assisted the federal government in establishing a safety net of environmental regulations involving surface water, groundwater, air pollution, and waste disposal, testifying before congressional committees on more than three dozen occasions.

Lehr has published 12 books and over 400 journal articles relating to groundwater science. He is an outspoken proponent of sane environmental regulation that does not create more problems, to the economic detriment of society. His textbook, Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, published in 1992 by Van Nostrand Reinhold, established a milestone for objective science.

Lehr was recently chosen by McGraw-Hill to edit its new Handbook of Environmental Science, Health and Technology for the 21st Century, to be published in the year 2000. He is currently senior scientist with Environmental Education Enterprises, which teaches advanced technology short courses for environment professionals. Lehr spends a considerable amount of time on the road addressing meetings and conventions on environmental and motivational issues.

Cohen: One of the recurring themes in your many addresses to audiences across the country is the good news about the environment. What is the good news?

Lehr: The good news is that most of our goals to improve our environment, established exactly 30 years ago, either have been achieved or are well on their way to being achieved. Sixty-five percent of our surface waters can be considered swimmable and fishable as defined by the Clean Water Act, and the remainder improve yearly. There are virtually no pollutant outfalls entering our streams.

Our air is of excellent quality in nearly every metropolitan area, where smog was once the order of the day.

While groundwater remediation advances at a glacial pace, much has been achieved, and no significant ticking time bombs remain to be found. Today’s farmer, once a threat to these groundwaters through his misapplication of agricultural chemicals, is today the best steward of the land. Both point and nonpoint source pollution of groundwater in America’s heartland are essentially things of the past.

Municipal, industrial, and domestic waste disposal, once feared for their pollution potential, are now managed through advanced technologies in recycling, reuse, and leak-free storage in modern landfills.

The bottom line is that our environment has never been cleaner or safer in man’s history. Cancer rates are declining, life expectancy continues to increase, and there are clearly no global environmental disasters on the horizon.

Cohen: Do you believe our nation’s current regulatory scheme is the best way to provide for a clean environment and a free society?

Lehr: Absolutely not. We are about 10 years past the need for a command-and-control federal environmental protection program. There is no question of the initial need for such a program in the 1970s. We really did have to get the public’s attention, and we did it somewhat like the old story of hitting the mule with the 2-by-4 to get its attention before asking it to move along.

But now our national environmental protection program is moving extremely well at the state level. The role of the federal government has become onerous, costly, and inefficient with no significant benefits accruing to either the public health or the environment.

Cohen: Should environmental decision-making be devolved from Washington to state and local governments?

Lehr: The only way the United States can survive the tyranny of overzealous environmental oppression, which is eroding many of our freedoms granted by the Constitution, is to replace federal power with state power. At the state and local level, regulation is performed eye-to-eye, neighbor-to-neighbor, and the results will be far more reasonable.

Cohen: What role, if any, should the federal government play?

Lehr: There definitely remains a role for the federal government in environmental protection. It should be the responsibility of the federal government to convene blue-ribbon panels of environmental scientists with expertise in all areas of concern. Those panels should continuously evaluate new data to assure that national goals on environmental issues are up-to-date and appropriate to our advancing knowledge.

Additionally, the establishment and maintenance of reasonable minimum standards can remain in the purview of the federal government. This may ensure that no state will ever again attempt to gain economic advantage over another state through lax environmental controls, which we experienced in the early 1960s.

Cohen: Are you dismayed by how science is used today to justify environmental policy?

Lehr: I am appalled, but no longer surprised. Both science and the environment are being used in a biased, flawed, and often-fraudulent manner to pursue political agendas with little real concern for either the environment or science . . . or, for that matter, people’s welfare.

Cohen: There is a tremendous amount of environmental misinformation going around. You have been at the forefront of those who have tried to correct that problem. Tell us a little bit about your 1992 textbook, Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns.

Lehr: In 1988, it dawned on me that the amount of misinformation that was circulating about groundwater contamination was causing the development of very poor protection policies. I wondered if the same were true with other environmental disciplines relating to surface water, air pollution, acid rain, radon, asbestos, agricultural chemicals, risk assessment, and toxicology, to name just a few. So I sought out the leading experts in these and other fields. I eventually learned that they all suffered from the same severe distortion in the popular media and in the annals of junk science.

I asked many of these scientists to join me to create a reference book of true technical evaluation of every imaginable environmental problem our nation faced. The result was Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, published in 1992 by Van Nostrand Reinhold. The book is still being distributed today by John Wiley publishers. It contains 81 articles on 29 disciplines by myself and 49 other prominent scientists. I wrote nine articles myself and edited all the others to ensure that the average non-scientist reader would be able to glean a maximum amount of information from them.

Rational Readings remains the most complete compendium on environmental concerns available, though it spawned a number of summary versions, such as The Heartland Institute’s outstanding book, Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmental Issues.

Cohen: What will be in your new handbook on environmental science, and who is the target audience?

Lehr: I was honored to have McGraw-Hill approach me two years ago to create a new handbook for environmental scientists. I created an outline calling for a contribution on every imaginable topic relating to the environment. We published the outline on our Web site. We requested experts from around the world to contribute to this effort. Each volunteer had to submit writing samples and a resume. We selected 95 contributors who will ultimately create a 1,600-page summary of environmental science, health, and technology for professionals entering the next millennium. It will be published in the spring of the year 2000.

Cohen: In your travels across the country, have you noticed a greater public awareness of the importance of the kinds of things you have written and spoken about?

Lehr: While I find more and more audiences willing to accept all the good news I present, the impact of the repressive doomsayers all about us still prevails. It is going to take many more spokespersons like myself and many more publications like Environment News to shift the balance of public perception.

My goal is to address 100 audiences a year for the next 30 years, with an average of 200 people per audience. That will put me in front of 20,000 people a year. If only 5 percent of each audience shares with others my message on the real state of the environment, and if media coverage of these programs is present even to a modest extent, there will be an exponential growth of awareness that could be significant. I wish I could do more, but at least I feel like I am doing my best.

Cohen: People who challenge the prevailing “conventional wisdom” on environmental quality can usually count on being attacked sooner or later. Has this been your experience? How have you dealt with it?

Lehr: I have not recently had a problem with being targeted by the opposition for a number of reasons. First, I am not strident in my views. I present the scientific facts as I know them on all issues in an objective and balanced manner. While my enthusiasm may be confused with passion, the facts really speak for themselves.

Secondly, I do not place myself before audiences of environmental zealots. That would truly be a waste of time. Those people are not amenable to dispassionate presentations of scientific knowledge. I try to talk to groups with open minds who want to know what is true and what is false. Most open-minded people suspect an inherent distortion in the gloom and doom that pours forth incessantly from the conventional sources of information that surround them.

Finally, I am an incurable optimist and convince my audiences that one way or another we will all survive the wrong-headed views on the environment which surround us. I can usually find reasons to laugh in the face of adversity and create an audience of optimists.

Cohen: Aside from being in constant demand as a public speaker, you are also senior scientist with Environmental Education Enterprises. What does this organization do, and what is your role in it?

Lehr: Environmental Education Enterprises offers 85 different advanced environmental technology short courses for environmental professionals. We have over 120 part-time faculty members from business and academia. We put these courses on for private consulting firms and government agencies. We advertise primarily on our Web site, My role has been to help develop these courses with the instructors and ensure they remain on the cutting-edge of our environmental knowledge.

Since environmental protection will forever be part of the fabric of American life, we expect to be in business for many more decades.

Cohen: Please give us your vision of a sane environmental policy for the next century.

Lehr: A sane environmental policy can only come about when we discard poorly reviewed junk science.

We must stop chasing ever smaller particles of contamination virtually down to the individual molecule. We cannot have a sound environmental policy if we continue to attempt to remove parts per trillion (ppt) of compounds from our environment. A ppt is approximately one second in 32,000 years. It can have virtually no impact on human health regardless of the nature of the chemical, yet we continue to spend billions of dollars trying to eliminate compounds in our environment this small and innocuous. Even parts per billion, a second in 32 years, stretches the concept of responsible stewardship.

We must begin to accept reasonable assessments of risk in every area of human life. A sane policy will occur when sanity prevails in human risk assessment. That will be when we accept environmental risks at the levels we encounter normally in our daily lives–no more, no less. This will depend on our ability to improve public understanding of science and thwart those who would scare the public with unsupportable data and conclusions.

Our environment can, does, and will contribute to improved public health rather than detract from it. We will, one day, again prevail with this common-sense approach.

Cohen: What single short-term goal will make the greatest contribution to long-term environmental policy?

Lehr: Elect a new federal administration in the year 2000 which does not include Albert Gore. If you are a Democrat, pull for Bill Bradley. If you are Republican, I suspect Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole, John Kasich, John McCain, or Steve Forbes will do okay.

Jay Lehr can be reached by e-mail at [email protected];