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EPA is still the worst regulatory agency in history

epa gold mine spillAn EPA cleanup crew on August 5 accidentally caused a breach in an abandoned gold mine in the southwestern part of Colorado, spilling three million gallons of highly toxic mining waste that contaminated waterways in Colorado and New Mexico. Then the agency failed to notify downstream jurisdictions whose drinking water and recreational waterways were threatened.

To veteran EPA watchers, such monumental screw-ups are not surprising.

When I began my fifteen-year tenure at the FDA during the Carter Administration, I had been a lab scientist and had little knowledge of government.  I soon discovered that there were foibles of various kinds at the numerous regulatory agencies I interacted with, but EPA made by far the biggest impression. Their bureaucrats regarded science not as the basis for policy and decisions on individual products, but as a tool to be tortured to achieve ideological ends.

To my astonishment, I found that there were entire groups within EPA whose function it was to lie to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress about the rationale for and impacts of their proposed regulations. And over the years, I discovered that there is a kind underground railway that conveys the most incompetent, disaffected and anti-industry employees from other regulatory agencies to EPA, creating a miasma of flawed governance.

During the two decades since I left government service, I’ve continued to watch EPA’s shenanigans with a mixture of awe and vexation. In administrations Democratic and Republican alike, it has remained a paragon of waste, fraud and abuse, a corrupt Evil Empire in our midst.

With a research budget in excess of $800 million, EPA has long appeared to be more concerned with public relations than public or environmental health. A scheme was exposed several years that would have diverted EPA “research” funds to pay outside public relations consultants up to $5 million over five years to improve the website of the Office of Research and Development, conduct focus groups on how to polish the office’s image, and produce ghostwritten articles praising the agency “for publication in scholarly journals and magazines.”

This payola scheme is similar to the agency’s longstanding practice of buying influence by doling out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to certain favored nonprofit organizations—money that, according to the inspector general and Government Accountability Office, is dispersed with no public notice, competition, or accountability. The GAO investigators documented systematic malfeasance by regulators, including: (1) making grants to grantees who were unable to fulfill the terms of the grants; (2) favoring an exclusive clique of grantees without opening the grants to competition; (3) funding “environmental” grants for activities that lack any apparent environmental benefit; and (4) failing to ensure that grantees performed the objectives identified in the grants.

I saw evidence of this while I was an official at the FDA. For some reason I was favored with periodic reports of the research funded by the EPA. The overwhelming majority of it was shoddy, irrelevant, and unpublishable.

It is understandable that EPA needs to resort to such chicanery to whitewash its shortcomings.  Science is routinely used there as a tool to further its anti-technology and anti-industry agendas, even if it means distorting the intent of statutes and affronting common sense.

The EPA is the prototype of agencies that spend more and more to address smaller and smaller risks. In one analysis by the Office of Management and Budget, of the 30 least cost-effective regulations throughout the government, the EPA had imposed no fewer than 17.  For example, the agency’s restrictions on the disposal of land that contains certain wastes prevent 0.59 cancer cases per year–about three cases every five years–and avoid $20 million in property damage, at an annual cost of $194 to $219 million.

In his excellent book Breaking the Vicious Circle, written shortly before he became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Stephen Breyer cited another, similar example of expensive, non-cost-effective regulation by the EPA: a ban on asbestos pipe, shingles, coating, and paper, which the most optimistic estimates suggested would prevent seven or eight premature deaths over 13 years – at a cost of approximately a quarter of a billion dollars.  Breyer observed that such a vast expenditure would cause more deaths than it would prevent from the asbestos exposure, simply by reducing the resources available for other public amenities.

Also, perversely, the very act of removing asbestos from existing structures poses greater risk from asbestos than simply leaving it where it is: During removal, long-dormant asbestos fibers are spread into the ambient air, where they expose workers and bystanders to heightened risk.  When the EPA banned asbestos in 1989, it was already an old product whose risks and benefits were well understood. Nevertheless, political pressures from environmental activists pushed the EPA into making a decision that turned actually to raise the risk to public health.

Another example of flawed decision-making at the EPA is the imposition of overly stringent ambient air standards under the Clean Air Act. Clean air is desirable, of course, but an EPA rule finalized in February 2012 that created new emissions standards for coal- and oil-fired electric utilities was ill-conceived. According to an analysis by Diane Katz and James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation:

The benefits are highly questionable, with the vast majority being unrelated to the emissions targeted by the regulation. The costs, however, are certain: an estimated $9.6 billion annually. The regulations will produce a significant loss of electricity generating capacity, which [will] undermine energy reliability and raise energy costs across the entire economy.

Stung repeatedly by the responses to such benefit-cost calculations, EPA has begun more frequently to manipulate the benefit side by invoking so-called “non-use benefits” of regulations, such as “the value one places on knowing that an aquatic ecosystem is healthy” or secondary and tertiary ecosystem impacts.” The problem with such supposed benefits is that estimating them is highly prone to wishful thinking.  (Read: plucking numbers from the air.) For example, regulators might “calculate” that a significant improvement in water quality in the Mississippi River could be a source of benefit to people throughout the nation, not just those who use the river or who live near it, because it is nationally symbolic.

An EPA subterfuge that has received attention lately from Sen. David Vitter and other Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee is the “sue and settle” maneuver that EPA uses to advance its radical environmental agenda in a way that substitutes a judicial mechanism for the customary interface of legislation and agency rulemaking. The way this works is that extremist environmental groups (some of which receive government grants) sue the federal government on the grounds that agencies are failing to meet their regulatory obligations, and then, behind closed doors, the activists and Obama administration officials concoct a settlement agreement that furthers activists’ (and regulators’) radical goals.

EPA’s Scientific Integrity Officer Francesca Grifo (who came to EPA from a radical environmental group) claimed that government scientists are currently working on “safe food” and a “safe environment” using the “best available science,” and that “the most important thing as we move forward is to increase the transparency of the federal government.” She is wrong on both counts.

EPA’s science is shoddy, and its scientists and administrators routinely manipulate it to fit their radical policy agendas. Moreover, transparency is less important in government regulation than the content of decisions. Putting it another way, transparency is desirable, but arriving at the right decisions about public health and environmental protection is what is paramount.

The EPA has long been intellectually, scientifically and ethically bankrupt, arguably the worst regulatory agency in the history of the world. But perhaps I understate.

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Name: Richard Billies

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