Where Do We Go From Here?
Part V of Gorilla in the Closet zeroes in on what can be done under the Biden Administration to create an EPA that more cost-effectively and inclusively serves its original purpose — protection of public health and the environment. The plethora of federal regulations passed in the past 50 years and their beneficial impacts on protecting the quality of the human and natural environment came with enormous cost and must be protected through better planning and collaboration with Governors and state pollution control directors. Local initiatives like a reboot of the Section 208 water quality management planning process of the mid-1970s need to be achieved, along with new federally seeded local programs to address carbon emissions.
Previous administrations have recognized the importance of EPA’s oversight function (the gorilla in the closet, if you will) as day-to-day responsibilities have shifted to states. However, past initiatives vary with the personality-driven EPA regional offices, and often were rolled out under the confusion of whether these initiatives were guidance or mandatory. States, as with EPA regional offices, vary in their preparedness, expertise and resolve to act.
Eric proposes a major organizational change to update the EPA for the times where all 50 states now do the heavy lifting in terms of permits and compliance monitoring and enforcement under the command-and-control regulatory model we have followed for 50 years. EPA’s oversight function is more important than ever. To achieve this oversight in a more transparent and consistent basis, Eric proposes co-locating top EPA senior “Ombudsmen” and program staff now located in 10 regional offices, with state pollution control entities and initiating from the top of EPA an agency-wide audit of existing oversight programs to establish a standard operating procedure to collaborate, oversee and evaluate state performance and initiate enforcement actions when justified. It is vital that EPA also be evaluated in this new initiative. Eric achieved this management goal at EPA in 1983 called the Office of Water Operating Guidance and Accountability System, but like many good initiatives was abandoned by future administrations because of the revolving door of its leadership and the varied skills, personal interests, motivations, and background of those who succeeded Eric at EPA.
Why the EPA Matters
American mothers and fathers want to believe that someone is looking after the quality of the air we breathe and the water they and their children swim in, fish from, and drink. They have no personal control over air and water quality but assume it is safe. It should be, but it is not self-evident that there will always be an effective federal presence in protecting public health and the environment. It depends on future better management of the EPA’s portfolio and its ability to operate independently from the vicissitudes of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Eric’s signature regulatory reform effort was a body of regulations that governed how states set water quality goals and pollution control requirements at the local level. These are the Water Quality Standards and Water Quality Management provision of the 1972 Clean Water Act. The proposed rule was the sword Eric fell on for President Reagan during the “Sewergate” controversy where the politics of personal destruction were at play, and people who held top staff positions with the environmental lobby used a coordinated attack to “prove” me and my colleagues were bad people and backing away from enforcing environmental statute. This was all part of their strategy to weaken President Reagan for the next presidential election in 1984.
Eric appeared as a guest speaker on the nationally televised MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (see video) in October 1982, the same day the proposal was published in the Federal Register, under the headline “EPA’s Muddy Waters.” The final regulations signed out by William D. Ruckelshaus which contained Eric’s imprint — his moniker, if you will — shifted the “can’t do” paradigm to a “can do” paradigm that opened up the process to more meaningful public participation and engineering and scientific innovation, thus reducing, if eliminating, the frequent contentiousness between EPA, states and the regulated community. The federal body of rules has remained substantively intact ever since.
Water Quality Standards is an example of the last defense against protecting our vital national water resources on a local level and was driven by Eric’s experience at the local level, managing a Section 208 water quality management plan. The plan upended the State of Colorado’s confusing, costly, and scientifically bereft approach to protecting beneficial uses of water — and found its way in federal regulatory reform under Eric’s leadership. This planning process should serve as a guide to local participation in devising relevant, tangible, and meaningful programs at the local level to reduce carbon emissions.
Perhaps this book will make a difference. Let’s hope so!