Policy analysts address environment ‘hot topics’ at Lexington conference

Published September 1, 1999

The Lexington Institute’s July 20 Capitol Hill conference featured speakers addressing a wide range of EPA-related issues. In addition to challenges against the agency’s misuse of science and harassment of scientists, other speakers addressed independent access to agency data; abusive and counterproductive EPA enforcement tactics; and “environmental justice.”

Data Access

Last year, Congress passed a law, later signed by the President, granting public access under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to data derived from studies funded by federal grants. The law, known as the Shelby Amendment (named after its sponsor, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby), is currently under attack by some members of Congress and, indirectly, by EPA.

Michael Gough, a scientist who spent many years in government, told the conference that “science works best when it’s open to skepticism, review, and attempts at replication.” Gough noted that EPA based its new air quality standards in part on data contained in a study conducted under the auspices of the American Cancer Society (ACS). Attempts by Congress and other interested parties to obtain the data were rebuffed with the argument that the database was the property of ACS. It was later revealed that no one at EPA had seen the data.

“I question whether billions of dollars in regulatory costs should be heaped on American industry, cities, and consumers on the basis of data that have not been examined by the regulatory agency,” Gough said.

Enforcement Practices

EPA enforcement practices were the subject of remarks presented by James DeLong, vice president and general counsel of the National Legal Center for the Public Interest. DeLong pointed out that EPA interprets environmental laws and regulations through its enforcement office instead of its offices of air or water. “EPA,” he said, “has no interest in environmental actions outside its enforcement office.”

Rather than having an environmental enforcement system in which the penalties are roughly commensurate with the violations, decisions on such matters are frequently arbitrary, he said. “If you offend the agency, you are likely to end up in jail,” DeLong observed. At EPA, enforcement officials often can’t resist the temptation to “bean” violators–that is, rack up as many sentences as possible irrespective of the amount of environmental degradation involved.

Environmental Justice

Addressing the politically sensitive issue of environmental justice, Chris Foreman of the Brookings Institution noted that those pushing the issue are “a group of people engaged in social advocacy who have incorporated environmental themes into their movement.”

“That is the game that’s being played here,” he noted. By raising the specter of environmentally induced diseases in minority communities, advocates of environmental justice have wed environmental concerns with civil rights.

As for the legitimacy of such arguments, Foreman said environmental justice “is not a health problem but a political problem.” He dismissed the idea that there is a “cancer alley” stretching along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, pointing out that the number of cancer cases there is no higher than the national average.

Whatever its technical merits, however, environmental justice–by raising the question of environmental equity–“is a powerful political force that makes claims that are intuitively attractive,” Foreman observed. He noted that EPA’s Title VI “interim guidance” on environmental justice, issued in February 1998, could affect economic opportunities for minorities in inner cities and may conflict with the agency’s plans to convert brownfields (mildly contaminated abandoned industrial sites) into productive use.