What’s Wrong with the EPA?
by William Sanjour, US Environmental Protection Agency
For the past 20 years I have worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. There I have been given the choice of being a “good soldier” and obeying orders or a “good citizen” and obeying the law. I have not, I’m afraid, been a very good soldier.
When I came to the then-new agency, I hoped to do something useful and constructive. In 1974 I was made a branch chief in the Hazardous Waste Management Division. The studies I supervised there played an important part in the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976, the first federal law regulating toxic waste. I was also in charge of drafting regulations for the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous wastes.
But in 1978 the Carter administration, preoccupied with inflation, took steps to protect industry by removing the teeth from those regulations. At first I fought from the inside to make RCRA work in the true spirit of the legislation. The result was that in 1979 I was transferred to another position, with no duties and no staff. I became an outspoken EPA critic, a whistleblower, and have been one ever since.
Since then, I have spent much of my spare time meeting with grassroots environmental groups. Their members frequently ask me why the Environmental Protection Agency does not seem particularly interested in protecting the environment. The question usually comes from people who are dealing directly with the EPA for the first time, who had always thought of the agency as the guys in white hats who put the bad polluters in jail. It comes from ordinary citizens with ordinary political views and lifestyles who suddenly find themselves living close to where somebody is building a hazardous waste facility, incinerator, or nuclear waste dump. These people start out with a strong faith in their country and its institutions. “If there were anything wrong with it,” they say, “the government wouldn’t let them do it.”
To their surprise, these folks find that the EPA officials whom they thought would be their allies are at best indifferent and often antagonistic. They find that the EPA views them, and not the polluters, as the enemy. Citizens who thought that the resources of the government would be at their disposal find instead that they have to hire their own experts to gather data on the health and environmental impacts of proposed facilities, while the government sits on the same information collected at public expense. If these increasingly jaded folks want to go to court, they have to pass the hat and run bake sales to hire attorneys to go up against government lawyers whose salaries are paid by the public.
To understand why the Environmental Protection Agency is the way it is, you have to start at the top, and since the EPA is part of the executive branch, that means the White House. The President (any President, Republican or Democrat) and his immediate staff have an agenda of about a half dozen issues with which they are most concerned. These are usually national security, foreign affairs, the economy, the budget, and maybe one or two others; call them Class A priorities. All othersóhousing, education, transportation, the environmentóare Class B.
The President expects performance in Class A. He will expect the military to be able to deploy forces anywhere in the world when an emergency arises, and if it isn’t, he will bang heads until it is. If Congress doesn’t support his budget, he will bring the budget director into his office and slam his fist on the table. But can you picture the President bringing the Secretary of Transportation into his office and yelling because of poor bus service in Sheboygan? Or calling the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency into the Oval Office to chew him out for pollution in the Cuyahoga River? I can’t. That is the difference. The President expects performance in Class A; in Class B he expects peace and quiet.
Hundreds of people in the EPA have spent tens of millions of dollars and have advanced their careers by busily drawing up work plans, attending meetings, making proposals, writing reports, giving briefings, conducting studies, and accomplishing nothing.
But regulatory agencies, by their very nature, can do little which doesn’t adversely affect business, especially big and influential business, and that disturbs the President’s repose. The EPA, for instance, cannot write regulations governing the petroleum industry without the oil companies going to the White House screaming “energy crisis.” If it tries to control dioxin emissions, The New York Times (whose paper mill in Canada has been sued for dumping dioxin into the Kapuskasing, Mattagami, and Moose Rivers) writes nasty editorials. If it tries to enforce the Clean Air Act, polluters run to Vice-President Dan Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness for “regulatory relief.”
EPA employees soon learn that drafting and implementing rules for environmental protection means making enemies of powerful and influential people. Although it isn’t transmitted through written or even oral instructions, employees learn to be “team players,” and that ethic permeates the entire agency. People who like to get things done, who need to see concrete results for their efforts, don’t last long. They don’t necessarily get fired, but they don’t advance either; their responsibilities are transferred to others, and they often leave the agency in disgust. The people who get ahead are those clever ones with a talent for procrastination, obfuscation, and coming up with superficially plausible reasons for accomplishing nothing.
For example, the EPA used to grant billions of dollars for the construction of local sewage treatment plants. These plants generated a sludge that the EPA encouraged for use as a fertilizer. In 1974, I pointed out to my managers that there was considerable evidence from Department of Agriculture studies that some municipal sewer sludge contained poisons that could be transmitted to people when it was used as fertilizer. I recommended regulations to control the problem. This notion was very unpopular with the burgeoning new sewage plant construction industry and its promoters within the EPA. The responsibility for this issue was taken out of my hands and transferred to a committee, which studied the issue for a year and did nothing but recommend further study. For this they all received medals and cash bonuses as “outstanding performers” at the EPA.
In the past 18 years this story has been repeated many times. Hundreds of people in the EPA have spent tens of millions of dollars and have advanced their careers by busily drawing up work plans, attending meetings, making proposals, writing reports, giving briefings, conducting studies, and accomplishing nothing. It is now 1992, and the issue of how to regulate sewage sludge has still not been resolved.
At this point you may protest that the EPA has written many regulations, that it has in fact reduced pollution in many areas, cleaned up Superfund sites, and collected millions of dollars in fines from polluters, some of whom have even been sent to jail. Yet in most cases, the agency had to be coerced into meaningful action. The EPA, more often than not, actually opposes the passage of tough environmental laws, and organizations like the Sierra Club have to sue in federal court just to make it do what it is funded for and is legally required to do. When I was writing government procurement regulations for recycled materials, I was told that a proposed regulation would not even be considered for the Administrator’s signature unless it was a court-ordered deadline. So I had to encourage several organizations to sue the EPA in order to get the regulations out.
The people who get ahead are those clever ones with a talent for procrastination, obfuscation, and coming up with superficially plausible reasons for accomplishing nothing.
On an earlier occasion I was in charge of writing regulations for the management of hazardous waste landfills, which RCRA required to be issued in 1977. When Gary Dietrich, my boss, issued orders delaying the process, I warned him that we would miss the legal deadline. He laughed. “Nobody ever got thrown into jail for missing a deadline,” he said.
He was right. I was taken off the job. Here again I contacted an environmental organization which sued the EPA. The court imposed another deadline. The EPA missed that one, and the judge set another. They missed that one too and many, many more, but nobody was sent to jail for defying the court orders or not implementing the law. On the contrary, many were highly rewarded. Meanwhile, the public was exposed to poisons leaking out of countless unregulated hazardous waste dumps. Dietrich later left the agency to be a consultant for Waste Management, Inc.
This leads us to what I call Dietrich’s Law: “No one in the EPA is ever sent to jail, or loses their job, or suffers any career setback for failing to do what the law requires.” And the corollary: “Many people ruin their careers in the EPA by trying to do what the law demands.”
The landfill regulations were finally issued in 1982, five years after they were due. They were riddled with loopholes, like the one giving politically appointed regional administrators the final say in setting safety levels of toxic materials. Even so, the press hailed the EPA’s heroic achievement. The bloom quickly faded, however; when, after hearing testimony from myself and many others, Congress realized that the regulations were too weak, and passed a new law in 1984 requiring tougher standards. This time, it added a “hammer” provision: If the EPA missed the deadline, then all the wastes from a long list of chemicals would be banned from landfills. For the first time I can recall for regulations of this magnitude, the EPA met its deadlines. Why? Because in this case, industry would be hurt by not issuing the rules. The EPA is simply more concerned with protecting the interests of the people it is supposed to regulate than in protecting the public interest.
Does this mean that the EPA has cynically abandoned the environment for the sake of the powerful hazardous waste lobby? Actually, most people in the agency sincerely equate the waste management industry with the protection of the environment, and see the industry’s opponents as anti-environmental NIMBYs. But commercial hazardous waste management is a business, and successful businesses maximize income and minimize costs. Income is produced by taking in wastes through the gate; waste is money, and the more the better. Expense is incurred by treating the waste so as to protect human health and the environment. Obviously, these goals are diametrically opposed to what should be those of the EPA: to reduce the production of hazardous wastes and to maximize protection of human health and the environment.
The EPA’s confusion on this matter is well illustrated in the case of the WTI hazardous waste incinerator (the world’s largest), which is currently operating in East Liverpool, Ohio, in an already heavily polluted area surrounded by residences and schools and subject to frequent thermal inversions. WTI is a consortium of investors put together by Jackson Stephens, an Arkansas billionaire who is a golfing partner of Vice President Dan Quayle and who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to George Bush’s presidential campaigns.
The local citizens found many irregularities and outright violations of the law in the permit originally issued by EPA. Furthermore, the state law had significantly changed since the permit was issued in ways which might no longer allow the incinerator to be built where it was. Thus, when the incinerator operator asked for a permit modification to install a spray dryer (which many technical experts felt was unsafe), the above facts would normally require the permit to be reissued rather than merely modified. But given the public mood and the changes in the law since the original permit was issued, this was likely to result in long delays and possible revocation of the permit.
The incinerator operator told the Ohio EPA that he “can’t risk any appeals.” The Ohio EPA responded that “if there is a way to authorize this change without a formal permit change, we should try to do so.” William Muno, director of the EPA’s Waste Management Division in Chicago, knew where his duty lay; at a meeting with congressional staffers on November 12, 1991, he said that he would not order a permit change because the EPA “had to treat our constituents (i.e., WTI) in a fair and equitable manner.”
…industry can offer EPA employees things the environmentalists cannot, especially high-paying jobs. It also offers generous contributions, over or under the table…
Influence peddling does not stop with the EPA. The top executives and lobbyists of the waste management companies are in constant touch with the President, the White House staff, members of Congress, governors, state legislators, state environmental protection agencies, county commissioners, the press, and national environmental organizations. (The Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Foundation all have top executives of the waste management industry on their boards.) The industry even has its own “grass-roots” organizations , like the “Concerned Taxpayers” of Carswell County, North Carolina, who took out newspaper ads supporting a controversial landfill. No one was ever able to discover who (other than local politicians) those taxpayers wereóbut the ads were paid for by Browning-Ferris Industries, the company trying to build the landfill.
Waste management is the growth industry of the late 20th century. The industry has grown very rich through its ability to control the regulators who are supposed to control itóand it shares this wealth with its benefactors. Government bureaucrats soon learn that while crossing the industry can get them into a lot of trouble, cooperating with it has many rewards, high among which is the hope of highly lucrative future employment. Indeed, rather than the environmental enthusiasts who flocked to the EPA in its early years, the agency is now full of careerists who view their job as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Scores of federal and state employees have gone on to careers in the hazardous waste industry including three out of the five EPA administrators. (Of the two who didn’t, one left in disgrace, and one was a millionaire already.)
No one is more closely associated with the revolving door at the EPA than William Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first Administrator when it was created in 1970. When he left the EPA in 1973, Ruckelshaus became senior vice-president and director of Weyerhaeuser, the huge timber and paper company and target of many environmental groups. He was named EPA Administrator a second time. from 1983 to 1985. Between and after his two terms he was a director of several companies concerned with regulations of the EPA, including Monsanto, the Cummins Engine Co. (a diesel engine manufacturer), Pacific Gas Transmission Co., and the American Paper Institute.
After his second stint at the EPA, he formed a consulting firm called William D. Ruckelshaus Associates, which was then hired by the Coalition on Superfund, an organization seeking to weaken the Superfund law by absolving polluters of strict legal liability for their actions. The coalition included such Superfund polluters and their insurers as Monsanto, Occidental Petroleum, Alcoa, Dow Chemical, AT&T, Du Pont, Union Carbide, Aetna Insurance, and Travelers Insurance. Assisting Ruckelshaus in this effort were Lee Thomas, Ruckelshaus’ hand-picked successor as Administrator of the EPA, and William Reilly, then head of the Conservation Foundation. (Ruckelshaus and Thomas helped fund Reilly’s foundation to produce studies in support of the coalition’s position.)
Ruckelshaus went on to become CEO of Browning-Ferris Industries, the number-two waste management company in America, for a guaranteed minimum annual salary of $1million. Browning-Ferris had a dreadful environmental record and had been hit with millions of dollars in fines. Ruckelshaus was supposed to clean up the company’s reputation, but the appointment did more to tarnish his.
When George Bush ran for President in 1988, Ruckelshaus was his environmental advisor, and was thus able to install his protege, William Reilly, as EPA administrator and former Ruckelshaus Associates Vice-President Henry Habicht as Deputy Administrator. Thus, the two top executives of the EPA were placed by the head of a company which is a major polluter, heavily regulated by the EPA, a principal responsible party for many Superfund sites, and a contractor for EPA-funded Superfund cleanups.
People outside the agency often assume that the national environmental groups have a stronger influence within the EPA than does industry. But industry can offer EPA employees things the environmentalists cannot, especially high-paying jobs. It also offers generous contributions, over or under the table, to almost anybody who will take its money.
Waste Management, Inc. has its own political action committee, one of the largest in the country. Between 1987 and 1988 it contributed $430,000 to congressional candidates, in addition to money funneled through trade associations, chambers of commerce, and the Democratic and Republican parties. There are many documented cases of WMI’s largess to politicians, including flying a politician in a corporate jet to visit a WMI facility and giving him a cash gift of $10,000; paying $4,000 for a Chicago politician’s vacation in Acapulco; giving a congressional staffer a $2,000 “honorarium” to visit a WMI facility; and paying an outright $3,000 bribe to a local commissioner in Florida.
Environmental groups tend to deal with the EPA as an institution, dealing with it through Congressional committees, the courts, and top EPA executives. Industry does the same, of course, but it also interacts with individual EPA employees at every level, working directly with the field inspectors and permit writers responsible for making particular decisions. When I was in charge of writing regulations, I was the object of this courtship, showered with flattery, meals, trips, and hints of future employment. In addition to real and hinted-at job opportunities, people who cooperate with industry also find that the lobbyists will lobby for their advancement with upper management. Those who don’t cooperate find the lobbyists lobbying for their heads.
Regardless of their magnificent trappings, institutions are made up of people; behind the great and powerful Oz is a fragile little man pulling the levers. Because it is based on weak and fallible individuals, the liberal dream of powerful institutions protecting and perfecting our lives can easily become a nightmare of corruption and abuse.
The founding fathers knew this. They didn’t trust institutions. They didn’t think a nation could remain free unless its citizens stayed on top of things themselves; that’s why they set up such an elaborate balance of competing interests, of checks and balances. I believe the right approach is to reduce the power of the institutions, and increase the power of the people who have the most at stake.
This article is excerpted from Sierra magazine, September/October, 1992.