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Indiana University

EPA: much abused agency wonders who will deliver next blow

May 30, 2012
Guest Column, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Indiana --

Image of Marc LameThis column was submitted by Marc Lame, who teaches environmental management in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. He serves on the federal advisory committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is the former chairman of the Arizona Supreme Court’s foster-care review board.

Like an abused child too terrified to perform normal tasks, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency too terrified to do its job?

The words I hear in the halls of the agency are “they want to turn off the lights and lock the doors.” What I am actually hearing from the agency is “they are coming to hurt me again.”

The EPA has a mission to protect human health and the environment mandated under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Act and others. The creation of this agency and enabling legislation was a result of 150 years of industrial progress without recognized consequence.

It was only to be realized by rivers that caught fire, “killer smog” dropping citizens on the sidewalks of cities, homebuilders digging into soil too toxic to live on and, of course, the possibility of a “Silent Spring” from the misuse of pesticides. In short, it is EPA’s responsibility to protect more than 300 million Americans from the effects of poor water quality, unhealthy air and toxic chemicals.

Who are “they” referred to above? At its conception, the EPA assumed authority of certain municipal and industrial processes heretofore un- or under-regulated. For example, the pesticide industry was required to comply with risk-based standards. This industry and others were caught sleeping by Rachel Carson’s exposure of the involuntary environmental health risks associated with modern living. They developed a pathological reaction to an increasingly popular belief in environmental health protection.

Thus, a union of anti-regulatory profiteers and ideologues became “they,” and they have persistently and with almost unlimited funding, created a system to terrify the regulators of pollution, pharmaceuticals, tobacco and fossil fuels.

With unprecedented access and affiliation, they manipulated congressional budget allocations and agency oversight, and they formed abusive strategies, which damaged and confused the EPA. Years of threats from lobbyists and their congressional minions have intimidated agency managers, reduced funding, imposed draconian travel restrictions and called for “science-based” studies to delay the common sense implementation of best management practices. The result was to severely restrict the ability of the EPA to efficiently protect our health and the environment.

Dysfunctional, co-dependent and functionally paralyzed describe some children who have been physically abused by their parent. These situations are made worse when the victim realizes those who are supposed to protect them will not. This is exactly what happened to the EPA under the George W. Bush administration regarding global warming and pesticide regulation.

At this point, the victim becomes damaged and confused to the point where they seek attention from the abusers. As surely as these victims of abuse become less able to function in a normal world, they also become more vulnerable to co-optation.

I believe this is what might be happening to the EPA. Not only is it afraid to function, but when it does, it functions to please its abusers. The EPA needs to be protected and learn to trust. In kind, it must learn to behave properly and be accountable.

In the first two years of the Obama administration, the EPA did develop confidence to perform its tasks, only to see congressional abusers start leering after the midterm election in 2010 and reminding this vulnerable agency just who is in charge.

Now is the time for the president, those in Congress who still believe in environmental protection and all Americans to demonstrate their support for the EPA. Otherwise, the abuse will continue.