Policies That Emanate from Liberty Most Successful: an Exclusive Interview with Becky Norton Dunlop

Published June 1, 1999

Becky Norton Dunlop served as Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1994 to 1998.

During her tenure, the state’s economy was booming, providing more jobs and record levels of investment. In addition, air quality in four of five non-attainment areas improved and qualified for upgraded designations; a scientific peer review of the water program praised the program as one of the best in the country; the Chesapeake Bay by all accounts continued to improve in quality and condition; citizens previously excluded from governmental councils and deliberations were included in developing voluntary strategies for improving water quality; and environmental laws and regulations were based on sound science and common sense.

Which all goes to show, she says, that prosperity is no enemy of the environment.

Dunlop is now Vice President of The Heritage Foundation, where she oversees the think tank’s strategic outreach and communication to public policy institutions, state government officials, business and conservative policy activists, and the Internet community. Her areas of policy experience include federalism, education, privatization, family, policy, and environmental issues. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Dunlop serves as a director on the boards of several organizations, including Defenders of Property Rights and the National Wilderness Institute. She is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

Cohen: As a former state environmental official, how would you characterize the current relationship between EPA and state environmental agencies?

Dunlop: The current relationship between the federal EPA and state environmental agencies is one of fear, distrust, uneasy tensions, and, to some extent, competition.

Of course, in many instances, the relationship is cooperative. But always, state officials know that EPA can reject their judgements, override their decisions, withhold funding from the state if there is a disagreement, and just generally lord the federal power over the state.

In one congressional hearing, a federal EPA official bragged to the Senate that there were over 20,000 opportunities in one year for EPA to over-file (override) a state decision, but they chose to over-file in only four instances. That example was supposed to show the generous nature of EPA. Instead, it showed that there were 20,000 instances in which state officials had to worry about whether EPA would pick them out to persecute or prosecute. It underscores the political nature of the decisions EPA makes.

Let me hasten to add that you won’t find many, if any, sitting officials stating this view about their relationship with EPA, because no one wants to become a target. With essentially unlimited resources and tremendous power, the federal EPA can make life and work miserable for any state official who stands up to it.

Cohen: Has there been a deterioration of these relations between EPA and the states?

Dunlop: This is the most politicized EPA in the history of the agency, and that is the result of Administrator Carol Browner’s very political role in the Clinton-Gore administration. Of course, her extreme views on the environment were well known before she became administrator of EPA, as she was instrumental in the writing of Al Gore’s radical environmental tract, Earth in the Balance.

In addition to being extreme in her policy and political views, she is an aggressive administrator who has openly used her budget and the personnel system to advance her political agenda, punish those who oppose her, and make policy without sound underlying science.

Examples of science, EPA scientists, proper grant procedures, and personnel that do not conform to her political views being cast aside are legion. States suffer under this regime because of the uncertainty and very political nature of the decisions made by Browner and her top lieutenants.

Cohen: What steps do you believe could be taken to improve relations between EPA and the states?

Dunlop: It really falls to Congress to change the nature of the relationship. EPA could implement a partnership agreement with the states as it began to do at one time, but an administrative remedy is simply temporary and at the whim of the administrator.

I believe we need an EPA administrator who champions the states’ authority and ability to deal with environmental issues and advocates a support and facilitative role for EPA. With such an advocate at EPA, I believe Congress could change the laws and role of EPA to make such improvements permanent and make the federal agencies true partners of the states.

Cohen: Much has been written in recent years about devolving responsibility for determining and overseeing environmental policy from Washington to the states. Do you believe this is a good idea?

Dunlop: Yes, but the devolution must be in law, not simply administrative, and the authority as well as responsibility must be devolved to the states.

It is absurd to continue to operate the federal government as though citizens in the several states care less about the quality and condition of the environment in which they live, work, and raise families than do federal bureaucrats hundreds of miles away.

Cohen: Congress has tried for years, but failed, to reform Superfund, the nation’s hazardous waste site cleanup program. Do you believe states could do a better job of cleaning up these sites and returning them to commercial or residential use?

Dunlop: I believe that in the large majority of privately owned current Superfund sites, states could more efficiently and effectively manage clean-up programs. In Virginia, the Allen administration worked with a bipartisan majority in the state legislature to approve a voluntary remediation program that put in place a clean-up program that would result in more timely and efficient clean-ups of contaminated sites before they became Superfund sites . . . and it did. We also declined to add non-government sites to the Superfund list, believing that doing so should be a last option for remediation.

The voluntary program was working quite successfully when we left office. Sites that are severely contaminated because of government operations should be remediated by the government to the same specifications as required of private clean-ups.

Cohen: Were there instances during your tenure in Virginia where federal environmental officials tried to prevent you from carrying out your mandate as a leading state environmental official?

Dunlop: In Virginia there were several examples of the federal EPA trying to impose its will on Virginians in ways we believed were bad for the environment and bad for our citizens.

One of these involved testing of tailpipe emissions. EPA had mandated through its regulations that Northern Virginians would be required to test 1.2 million vehicles in government garages at which no repairs could be conducted, and the fine print essentially dictated that there would be six to eight garages in all of Northern Virginia. Even if these garages had multiples lanes with testing equipment, Northern Virginians faced the spectacle of idling in long lines for tests on highly sensitive and expensive equipment and then, if the vehicle failed, the owner would have to drive that vehicle to another location for repairs and return to the testing facility for a retest once the repairs were completed.

This ping-pong policy was a disaster in the making–for vehicle owners, and for the environment. Virginia fought for the right to continue testing vehicles in neighborhood stations where a trusted mechanic could then do any repair work required. We argued this would benefit the citizens, who would find the program more convenient and trustworthy; and it would benefit the environment–no long lines of idling, polluting vehicles, no ping-pong of vehicles, and repairs made more quickly to those vehicles that had failed the test.

Further, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation requiring less-expensive equipment than EPA was mandating, equipment the service station industry argued would do the job just as well. Governor Allen was a leader in this effort and we were supported by a bipartisan congressional delegation. Virginia won, with Senator John Warner providing language in the law permitting Virginia’s solution to be implemented.

Another example was EPA’s opposition to Virginia’s voluntary audit program. This was a Virginia initiative designed to encourage and support efforts by large and small businesses across the commonwealth to voluntarily conduct environmental audits in their facilities with the purpose of finding and fixing equipment or other malfunctions in processes or procedures that could result in environmental impacts.

Finding and fixing such problems quickly was in the best interest of the environment because no lasting or enormous damage would occur. It would be less expensive for the company to fix a situation before it resulted in a huge problem, and it reduced the workload of the government’s inspectors if companies were encouraged to find and fix situations and report the situation confidentially. Seemed like a win-win, with everyone working together to improve the environment.

But not in the mind of EPA’s enforcement people, who wrote a letter threatening Virginia delegates of the General Assembly that they should not pass a voluntary environmental audit law. It was passed anyway and signed into law.

In both of these instances, Virginians just wanted the right to work to improve the environment in ways that would work best for us. EPA wanted it done their way. While Virginia won and the environment in Virginia has improved, you may be certain that the Gore-Browner forces have exacted a price.

In another instance, the federal EPA and Department of Justice used Virginia officials to do investigative work on a certain case. Just as Virginia filed its civil suit to deal with the civil penalties as a result of the investigation, the federal government over-filed, using the ridiculous argument that Virginia was doing nothing and they, EPA and DOJ, had to step in. This was just another example of the lack of cooperation Virginia officials received from the federal government.

Cohen: Could you cite a couple of experiences you had in Virginia showing how states can lead the way in providing for science-based environmental initiatives?

Dunlop: One of the best ways states can assist in providing for science-based environmental initiatives is to provide better data with which to make judgements about the problems and decisions about potential solutions.

An excellent example of this is data about water quality. States have the ability to increase the number of monitoring sites in rivers and streams systematically so any problems can be identified, sources can be located, and, working together, solutions can be developed and implemented. During the Allen administration, Virginia increased the number of monitoring sites by over 20 percent and established the program and protocols to include citizen and student monitoring in the data-gathering program. Solid scientific data provide a much better basis for making judgements about the environment than do computer modeling or campaign-motivated political science.

Cohen: Some people say the federal government is the nation’s biggest polluter. Is this true?

Dunlop: All governments are big polluters, and the federal government takes a back seat to no one. While circumstances surrounding moments of heightened national security concerns may result in lessened attention to potential pollution problems in certain security-related locations, government activities that are unrelated to national security should have no exceptions.

Today, we see national parks with sewage overflows or inadequate treatment facilities and commuting bureaucrats contributing to ozone alerts in metropolitan areas. If EPA is demanding reduced ozone levels, the federal government should be the first place to reduce activities contributing to those ozone levels.

No new land should be acquired by the federal government, particularly while lands already owned by the federal government are managed at different environmental standards than those imposed on local dry cleaners and laundromats.

Federal agencies should be required to meet all the environmental mandates placed on private citizens, and they should not have a nickel more added to their budgets in order to do so. No private citizen or company gets a budget appropriation from Congress to meet EPA mandates.

Furthermore, federal dollars should be focused on measurable results that actually improve the environment, rather than outputs such as more meetings, conferences, tours by Cabinet secretaries and administrators, and subsidies to groups that lobby for more tax dollars for EPA’s budget.

Cohen: For a long time, U.S. environmental policy, at least at the federal level, has been characterized by a hostile relationship between regulators and the regulated community. The result has been an endless stream of litigation that has benefitted lawyers, often at the expense of the environment. Is this inevitable?

Dunlop: The federal government should proceed to devolve environmental authority and responsibility to the states; reduce federal tax rates to stimulate the marketplace; and encourage each state to develop new and better ways to meet the goals of a growing and vibrant economy with more jobs and an improving environment and quality of life for citizens. This would reduce the stream of litigation and allow even the lawyers to be more productive.

Cohen: It would appear that there is much to be done in the way we address environmental and natural resource policy. Could you tell us what your vision is for a better environmental future?

Dunlop: My vision for a better environmental future is based on eight pretty straightforward principles:

  • People are the most important and precious resource. The foremost measure of the quality of our environment is human health and well-being. A policy cannot be good for the environment if it is bad for the people.
  • Natural resources are resilient and dynamic and respond positively to wise management.
  • The most promising new opportunities for environmental improvements lie in protecting and extending private property and in unleashing the creative powers of the free market. Ownership inspires stewardship. We must work to decouple conservation policies from regulation or government ownership.
  • Our efforts to reduce, control, and remediate pollution should achieve real environmental benefits.
  • The learning curve is Green. As we learn more, we are able to conserve by substituting information for other resources–more miles per gallon, more board-feet per acre of timber, a higher agricultural yield per cultivated acre, more GNP per unit of energy.
  • Management of natural resources should be conducted on a site- and situation-specific basis.
  • Science should be employed as a tool to guide public policy. Public policy on scientific subjects should reflect scientific knowledge.
  • Environmental policies that emanate from liberty are the most successful. There is a direct and positive relationship between free-market societies and the healthiness, cleanliness, and safety of the environment.

I believe that policies guided by these principles will lead to a world of renewed hope, sustained economic growth, greater opportunity for all, and a better quality of life for each of us.

Becky Norton Dunlop can be reached at The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20002-4999; phone 202/546-4400; fax 202/546-8328; e-mail