Mission creep at the EPA


Any bureaucracy worth its name seeks to increase its reach and budget, sometimes expanding the former to justify the latter. Nowhere is that tendency more apparent recently than in the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

An EPA announcement concerning the STAR (Science to Achieve Results – what other kind is there?) program cited a $7 million award to study the effects of “Pollution Exposures” and “Social Stressors” on communities. Six studies were funded. According to the announcement, “This groundbreaking research will focus on environments where people are exposed to multiple stressors such as chemicals, anxiety and poor nutrition.”

It is not a new area of research, but “anxiety and poor nutrition” is certainly a stretch for an agency whose reason for creation was “environmental protection.” And it is not the only indication of “mission creep.”

In defending its proposed 2010 EPA budget, Director Lisa Jackson declared that, “this budget is designed to meet our most pressing economic and environmental needs.”

Undoubtedly, it helped meet the agency’s economic needs: The EPA’s proposed 2010 spending was 40 percent higher than in 2009; other documents put it at 35 percent. An agency press release announced recently that its 2012 budget proposal “represents about a 13 percent decrease” from FY 2010. You can find out at the Whitehouse website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals/) that the 2010 budget was EPA’s highest, by far, since its creation.

After a year in office, Director Lisa Jackson propounded seven priorities for the agency. The first was “Taking Action on Climate Change.” Another was “Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice.” Implementing this priority includes, “building strong working relationships with tribes, communities of color, economically distressed cities and towns, young people and others, but this is just a start.”

This is the language of environmental activists – solving economic, social and racial problems in the name of environmental protection.

Mission creep didn’t begin with Director Jackson. In 1992, the EPA established an Environmental Equity Office to deal with environmental impacts on racial minority and low-income communities. Even old people received emphasis in a 2003 Aging Initiative to “develop a national agenda for the environment and the aging.”

This search for a mission is symptomatic of an agency with increasing budgets and the shrinking of problems for which it was created.

The 2010 EPA budget was 29 times as high as 1970s, when the agency was created, even though pollution is a tiny fraction of the problem it was then. Carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particle pollution have decreased by over 70 percent. Lead in the environment has plummeted, decreasing 89 percent in the air from 1984-1995 and by 90 percent in the blood of Americans.

Every major pollutant has gone down, most by more than half. Acid rain was never the threat it was claimed, but rain has become less acid. The main cause of acid rain, sulfur dioxide in the air, has decreased 60 percent since 1980. Pesticides are much less toxic to non-pests today than in the days of DDT and Toxaphene, and much less persistent in the environment. Wetlands have changed less than 1 percent since 1986.

There are 25 times as many nesting bald eagles in the United States as in 1963. The number of hawks in Georgia has tripled. Other wildlife have increased as dramatically, partially because of decreased pollution, but also because of the increased value society has placed on the environment. Deer have become a nuisance and danger, causing over 50,000 automobile crashes per year in Georgia. That is four times as many crashes as the number of deer in 1937.

More mission creep at the EPA is evident in the moving of goalposts for environmental cleanup. National standards were set for the six most serious air pollutants in 1971. All of those goals have been met, then standards for five of them were tightened in the past 10 years. It seems the air will never be clean enough.

Eighty percent of advisories against eating fish from U.S. waters are based on mercury, and the number of fishing places with those advisories has increased over 350 percent since the early 1990s. Increasing the number of advisories would lead one to think the danger of mercury pollution is increasing.

But mercury emissions have decreased 60 percent since 1990 and no documented case of harm from mercury in fish has ever been documented in this country.

For a science-based agency, emphasis on “equity,” “justice” and “anxiety” seems out of place. Warnings should not increase as danger decreases. But so it goes with big agencies pushed by special interests and a federal government that wants to be all things to all people – especially when money is easy.

[University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]