Enormously Pathetic Agency
The Evisceration of the EPA
Over the past several years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been performing an amazing public service: Surveying scientists, agency by federal agency, to determine how many report inappropriate political interference in their work. And so UCS has canvassed the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Food and Drug Administration—and so on. In each case, the surveys have shown intolerable levels of political meddling, and collectively have documented the existence of hundreds of unhappy researchers across the government. But we were all waiting to hear about the agency that many have long suspected to harbor the worst problems—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, once the crown jewel of the regulatory system, but now, under administrator Stephen Johnson, increasingly viewed as a scandal-ridden and hopelessly compromised tool of the White House.
We’d be fortunate if scientific integrity was the only trouble spot at EPA these days.
At long last, the UCS findings came out last week, and sure enough, the results are appalling. The nonprofit group received responses from 1,600 EPA scientists, and found an “agency under siege from political pressures”: 60 percent of respondents said they’d personally experienced political interference in their work in the past 5 years. Meanwhile, just over half of respondents—783, by number—said they could not freely share their findings with the media. These results might help explain recent actions by a group of unions representing EPA’s 10,000 employees, who in March broke away from the agency’s management, citing, among other complaints, systematic undermining of EPA’s scientific integrity principles.
But to be honest, we’d be fortunate if scientific integrity was the only trouble spot at EPA these days. Even as its scientists languish, the agency’s regulatory decisions are also being dramatically undercut on issues ranging from global warming to mercury pollution. Not only does EPA have problems heeding the research; it also has huge problems following the law.
Take mercury. As I’ve written here at Science Progress, a very conservative D.C. Circuit court just shot down EPA’s bizarre industry-friendly regulatory scheme for this toxic metal, saying the agency had employed the “logic of the Queen of Hearts.” Something very similar has happened on global warming—in Massachusetts vs. EPA, the agency lost at the U.S. Supreme Court over its failure to regulate car and truck greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. EPA had tried, in typical conservative fashion, to exploit scientific uncertainty in order to avoid the compulsion to regulate, but the (once again) conservative court would have none of it. That was in April of 2007.
A year later, the agency has still done nothing but study, study, study what to do next.
In short, we’re witnessing the meltdown of EPA.
But perhaps most outrageous is EPA’s treatment of California’s request—in the absence of serious action by the agency—to set up its own program for regulating vehicular greenhouse gas emissions. As National Journal recently reported in a scathing article on the agency’s failings entitled “Vanishing Act,” investigations by House Democrats suggest that EPA’s professional staff “overwhelmingly” recommended that agency administrator Stephen Johnson let California move ahead on its own. He didn’t.
All of these scandals, taken together, have people seriously comparing the state of EPA today to its previous nadir, under anti-regulatory zealot Ann Gorsuch Burford during the Reagan years. Reports and word of mouth (some of which I myself have heard) suggest that morale is exceedingly low at the agency these days—which, again, would explain the unions’ action. In short, we’re witnessing the meltdown of EPA, and there’s only one conceivable rescue: A new president who makes resuscitating the agency a key priority.
In this respect, one would imagine that any of the three candidates would improve matters—but at the same time, none of the three are currently talking about it much. That needs to change; Americans want a functional government, a competent one, and given how bad things have gotten at places like EPA during the Bush administration, that won’t happen without thorough housecleaning, to say nothing of a re-commitment to principles of scientific and regulatory integrity.
Perhaps most important, though, will be to re-establish some serious distance between agencies like EPA on the one hand, and branches of the White House—like the Office of Management and Budget or the Council on Environmental Quality—on the other. There’s much evidence—including from the recent UCS investigation—suggesting these political branches are really calling the shots at EPA, and that this lies at the root of many or even all of the recent scandals. The original concept for the functioning of the regulatory state was that independence and professionalism would reign at the agencies doing the people’s business. It’s staggering how far we’ve drifted from that vision.
Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs at The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
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