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Book Review

EPA analyzed

Pollution Control in the United States: Evaluating the System, by J. Clarence Davies and Jan Mazurek, Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1998, 319 pp.

David Clarke

To the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is faced with legislative requirements to better explain its goals and achievements under the Government Performance and Results Act as well as numerous other independent demands for reform, this hard-hitting analysis ought to be welcome counsel-that is, if EPA embraces the poet William Blake's aphorism, "In opposition is true friendship." Its 11 chapters summarize huge amounts of information about existing environmental laws and regulations, and in doing so capture the fundamental flaws of the system: its rigidity, incoherence, wrong priorities, massive lack of scientific knowledge and data, and ineffectiveness in dealing with many environmental problems, among others. Davies and Mazurek's critique rests on solid foundations of information and analysis, and however unpleasant the news might be, it is intended to point toward "radical change in a system that badly needs changing" while preserving what warrants preservation.

Perhaps the most enduring aspects of this trenchant assessment will be the six questions that guide the authors in their exploration: Has the system reduced pollution levels? Has it targeted the most important problems? Has it been efficient? How responsive has it been to a variety of social values (such as public involvement, nonintrusiveness, and environmental justice)? How does it compare with systems in other developed nations? How well can it deal with future problems?

Those evaluative criteria, as pointed out in a foreword by Resources for the Future President Paul Portney, would be equally applicable to other government programs, such as housing, crime prevention, and education. Thus, Davies and Mazurek's analysis, "one of the broadest attempts at program evaluation for any program area," contributes to the evaluation of pollution control policy in particular as well as to "the methodology of program evaluation generally." As such, it should be read together with another evaluative study-The Environmental Protection Agency, Asking the Wrong Questions, a 1994 book by Marc K. Landy, Marc J. Roberts, and Stephen R. Thomas-as a kind of "asking-the-right-questions" commentary on the nation's pollution control system.

A flawed system

Sadly, one of the main themes that emerges from Davies and Mazurek's comprehensive evaluation is that "Overall, it is impossible to document the extent to which regulations have improved environmental quality." Moreover, "a dearth of information of all kinds characterizes pollution control," including a lack of monitoring data to determine environmental trends, a lack of scientific knowledge about threats to human health and the environment, and a lack of information "that would tell us which programs are working and which are not." This is an astonishing information shortage for an enterprise nearly 30 years old whose main purposes-protecting human health and the environment-fundamentally depend on data and knowledge to determine whether those purposes are being achieved and where additional efforts are needed.

Despite this dearth of information, Davies and Mazurek manage to present a well-documented, compelling picture of the nation's system of laws, regulations, and other institutions for controlling pollution. They do so by first describing the main institutions and processes involved in pollution control, starting with federal legislation, "the bedrock, the driving force," of pollution control in the United States. To a significant degree, these laws determine how EPA is organized, how states act, and the nation's regulatory priorities and procedures. But in characterizing EPA's legal framework, the authors draw this harsh conclusion: "The federal pollution control laws are so fragmented and unrelated as to defy overall description." Not surprisingly, EPA's performance suffers from the built-in limitations of this fragmented system. EPA lacks an organic statute and a clearly articulated mission. It lacks the ability to deal effectively with problems requiring an integrated approach. It cannot set rational priorities among different programs. It faces major impediments in trying to identify new environmental programs. The system results in excessive litigation and bureaucratic red tape.

In a chapter on administra- tive decisionmaking, Davies and Mazurek explain that much of the recent criticism levelled against the regulatory system has been directed at EPA's decisionmaking process. As a regulatory agency "dominated by a legalistic culture that generally looks for engineering-based solutions" to satisfy its legal mandates, EPA often relies on science only to "defend, attack, or negotiate policy positions" rather than seeking rigorous and balanced scientific analysis. Furthermore, EPA's fragmentation, resulting from the combined forces of history, law, and organization, makes it hard to reach decisions. Of its many management shortcomings, however, "none is more damaging to the regulatory system as a whole than the absence of feedback and evaluation," the authors write. The problem is so dire that it must be remedied soon, they say, and add that EPA's lack of program evaluation capability reinforces the problems engendered by the lack of a regular reporting system.

EPA's dearth of adequate information to conduct feedback and evaluation is underscored in a chapter where the authors examine the question: Has the system reduced pollution levels? "Ideally, environmental managers should possess data that not only show how much pollution is emitted and concentrated in the environment, but also information that illustrates the potential adverse impacts of pollution on people and other living things," the authors write. But, "To date, no such comprehensive information system has been developed." Once again, the fragmentary nature of the air, water, waste, and other laws accounts for some of the data deficiencies. Pollution's tendency to travel through various media and to interact with other contaminants that transform the original pollutants adds to the problem of gathering monitoring data.

Davies and Mazurek use the data that are available to conclude that, since the 1970s, pollution releases have declined despite large population increases, economic growth, and vehicle use. "While we cannot definitively link the decline in pollution to laws, it coincides with the expansion of the federal regulatory system," the authors note. Some of the data, especially air quality data showing marked declines in emission levels, suggest that climate and industrial activity are major factors in environmental quality. The decline in heavy manufacturing that has occurred in the Rust Belt, for instance, has been credited for much of the emissions reduction. Water quality data are more deficient than air quality data, and hazardous waste data are so poor that trends are hard to interpret, though EPA, the states, and industry are working to improve the quality of that information.

In their discussion of whether the pollution control system targets the most important problems-that is, the greatest risks-the authors recap some of the intense debates of the past several years regarding comparative risks and priority setting. Data suggest that surface water pollution, air pollution, and hazardous waste are EPA's highest priorities, if expenditures can be used as a proxy for priorities. EPA's congressionally approved budget closely lines up with public opinion polls showing that the public's greatest environmental concerns are hazardous waste facilities, abandoned hazardous waste sites, and chemicals in underground storage tanks. Yet none of these concerns appears among the top-ranked concerns of EPA's senior agency analysts in their landmark 1987 Unfinished Business report, nor in subsequent scientific judgments about the greatest relative risks. The authors quote former EPA deputy administrator Henry Habicht, who suggested that Congress must give EPA legislative relief to enable its programs to focus on the greatest risk reduction in the most cost-effective manner. The authors also note that priority setting shares with other crucial pollution control functions the handicap that comes from our hodgepodge of national environmental protection laws.

Devoting a separate chapter to assessing whether expenditures on pollution control are producing good value for our money, Davies and Mazurek reach a mixed conclusion. On the one hand, in a great number of cases analysis can show that benefits exceeded costs, and thus the progress made under the U.S. system of controls has made sense economically. But on the other hand, environmental progress has been achieved at "unnecessarily high cost," and the authors conclude that the system's inefficiencies could be reformed at considerable gain to both the environment and the economy.

Under the heading "Social Values," the authors take on the complicated and important issue of public involvement in the regulatory system's decisions. Even the most effective environmental programs could fail if they did not meet widely held public values. The public (a term that encompasses a multiplicity of potential publics) participates in the environmental system in many ways, including litigation, notice and comment rulemaking, permitting, recycling, and information exchange. But existing participatory mechanisms would be greatly enhanced by the expanded use of advisory committees, the authors suggest. Part of the authors' social values discussion deals with the important values of nonintrusiveness (for which Davies and Mazurek have developed a rudimentary "intrusiveness index") and environmental justice, which EPA has been unable to make a high priority because it operates under utilitarian statutes and regulations.

When comparing the U.S. pollution control system with that of other countries, the authors are careful to give credit where it is due while not sparing our nation's system criticism they believe is warranted. The United States receives kudos for those instances where it has the lowest pollution levels, such as in its use of pesticides as compared with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries examined. In addition, the United States ranks comparatively low in annual releases of toxics per unit of gross domestic product. At the same time, the United States has the highest levels of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions and generates the highest per capita level of municipal waste. In addition, more than most countries examined by the authors, the U.S. system relies on pollution control rather than pollution prevention. And it relies on individual strategies rather than the integrated approaches that are increasingly being adopted by other countries, threatening to make the United States a laggard instead of a leader in environmental protection.

Finally, Davies and Mazurek explore the ability of the pollution control system to meet future problems, and they offer various themes or cautionary measures regarding this topic, which EPA's Science Advisory Board highlighted as extremely important in its 1995 Beyond the Horizon report. The most important theme, the authors note, is that "environmental protection is not solely the domain of EPA," and until other agencies' policies are truly integrated with those of EPA, those other agencies could be working against pollution-control objectives. The authors emphasize the tension between increased economic activity and increased environmental efficiency, a tension that could mean that environmental strains will rise even as per capita pollution declines. Returning to a theme sounded early in their book, Davies and Mazurek also emphasize the need for more data to identify environmental impacts and trends.

Overall, the analysis presented in this book is so comprehensive a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the existing pollution control system that one is led inevitably to the question: What should be done about the limitations described? Here the authors leave the reader hanging. True, one is prepared for this gap from the very beginning, when Davies and Mazurek point out that analysis and evaluation, not recommendations, are the book's primary purpose. Detailed recommendations "must await a future project," they say. One can only hope that the future project deals as forthrightly and completely with its subject as this book does with its own. One can also hope that discussions that are taking place among Republican and Democratic moderates on legislative regulatory reforms for the 106th Congress will draw on the analysis presented in this book, especially given the fact that those discussions are focused on the need for an information-age regulatory system that recognizes the central role of environmental performance indicators and measures of progress.


David Clarke, formerly the publisher of Inside Washington Publishers' Environment Group, is a senior policy staffer dealing with risk and regulatory reform issues at the Chemical Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C.