The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why does the EPA keep losing good people?

Gregg Easterbrook has some thoughts:

Equally, EPA administrators discover that environmental law is extremely prescriptive, spelling out in acute detail what they can or cannot do, leaving administrators almost no discretion. Whitman, for instance, determined that General Electric should be held liable to the tune of about $500 million for PCBs released into the Hudson River. Assume for the sake of argument that the fine was justified (though the releases were legal at the time). The extremely prescriptive Clean Water Act mandated that Whitman could only use the money for removing the chemicals from the river. So an elaborate Hudson dredging operation is now gearing up, though PCB levels in the river were already declining naturally anyway, and though it's possible the dredging will backfire by stirring up PCBs that sunk into sediment. The $500 million fine from General Electric could have been far better used to revitalize Hudson River towns or buy land for preservation in the watershed areas that supply New York City drinking water--a thousand more constructive uses suggest themselves. But under law, Whitman had to impose dredging: Essentially, she was required to order that the money be wasted. These kinds of things are pretty frustrating to governors.


So whatever you think of George W. Bush, in 2002 his administration proposed a clean-air legislation reform that would have accelerated reductions in pollution while cutting costs. For reasons of political theater, Democrats and enviros were opposed to a bill to reduce pollution (emphasis original), while Tom DeLay and his nut-case faction continued to claim that environmentalism is ruining the country. You'd want to flee, too, from a job where the political dynamic is this far removed from reality. The EPA has had five consecutive good administrators: Lee Thomas at the end of the Reagan presidency, Bill Reilly under Bush 41, Browner under Clinton, and Whitman and Leavitt under Bush 43. But why, in the current political environment, would a top person even want this job?

By the way, his TMQ column is up here.


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