WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE EPA?
DECEMBER 21, 1995
A report from California looks at the changing role of the Environmental Protection Agency, and how politicians view its power. Spencer Michels reports from Palo Alto.
MR. MICHELS: In 1971, just a year after its founding during the Nixon administration, the Environmental Protection Agency gave $10 million to Palo Alto, California, to build this sewage treatment plant. It serves 200,000 people. When it began, the EPA was seen as the agency to clean up the water and the air. Today, the agency continues to inspect the wastewater plant. It has also added to its original mandate by targeting toxics and hazardous waste. And the agency has grown significantly from 5500 employees in 1970 to almost 19,000 this year. Its budget has increased five-fold. Twenty-five years after inception, its political support among many Republicans in Washington has evaporated. They are pushing for a 23 percent cut as part of the continuing budget battle. Along the way, the rhetoric has gotten heated. Congressman Tom Delay has led the attack.
REP. TOM DELAY, (R) Texas: (July) The critical promise we made to the American people was to get the government off their backs, and the EPA, the gestapo of government, pure and simply has been one of the major "clawhose" that the government has maintained on the backs of our constituents.
MR. MICHELS: But that's not how it looks to everyone. In Palo Alto, the city's environmental manager, Phil Bobel, welcomes EPA inspections of his equipment and testing of his plant's discharge.
PHIL BOBEL, Environmental Manager: Nobody likes oversight. Nobody likes somebody looking over their shoulder, telling them what they do, but I'd be the first to admit that I think everybody needs somebody to look over their shoulder now and then.
MR. MICHELS: Harry Seraydarian, EPA's water manager, says plants like this benefit from the agency's continuing technical advice, like how to deal with new pollutants.
HARRY SERAYDARIAN, EPA Wastewater Division: EPA is involved in an appropriate way by providing national guidelines, providing technical assistance to state and local government, and it would be very hard for local government in separate, isolated situations to get the same environmental results.
MR. MICHELS: Yet, just a mile away at Stanford's Hoover Institution, that very relationship between the federal and state governments has come under challenge. Economists Tom Moore and John Cogan were officials in the Reagan administration.
JOHN COGAN, Economist: When money goes from the states and then back to the states, through the turnstile of the federal bureaucracy, there's a loading charge. And the wastewater treatment grants have an enormous loading charge.
TOM MOORE, Economist: The federal government is in a large deficit. The states are, in general, running surpluses. These are things that should be dealt with at the state and local level.
MR. MICHELS: Those who support the agency say if the federal government were not involved, many projects would not just get done. For example, the dredging of a ship channel in San Francisco Bay, to make this operation possible, EPA brought together competing commercial, civic, and environmental interests. EPA scientists had to find an environmentally safe ocean site to dump the mud. Some of the mud also was used to restore a depleted wetland. In order to save environmental projects like these, President Clinton has vetoed to cut down appropriations. John Cogan thinks the administration is crying "wolf."
JOHN COGAN: The administration does claim that if the Republican budget for EPA is passed, that the consequences for public health and for the environment will be devastating. It's a classic overstatement, the kind of overstatement that we often hear from government officials trying to get attention to their viewpoints.
MR. MICHELS: But EPA officials insist that enforcement programs already have been cut back, with more in jeopardy because of last year's budget cuts and new delays in funding. The agency has reduced the number of inspections like this one at an Oakland gas station. Over the years, agency inspectors have found 300,000 tanks that leak gasoline contaminating the soil and the groundwater. EPA's Pat Eklund says there will be fewer inspections if the new cuts get approved.
PAT EKLUND, EPA Official: This program is targeted for a 40 percent cut in the leaking underground storage tanks program.
MR. MICHELS: What does that mean specifically for you?
PAT EKLUND: Well, that means specifically for us that there are not going to be sites that are going to be cleaned up. State and local governments will not have the money.
MR. MICHELS: But the owner of this truck station, who praises the EPA for forcing replacement of leaking underground tanks, says he also sees the wisdom behind the GOP cuts.
FRED BERTETTA, JR., President, Olympian Oil Co.: We've got to do the best we can with what we've got, and if we can't afford it, what the hell is the good of having a strong EPA, if this country's broke? There won't be anything to inspect.
MR. MICHELS: Perhaps the part of the EPA's mandate that is used most often as an example by both supporters and opponents is Superfund, the clean-up of hazardous waste. Congress has specifically targeted Superfund for a 25 percent cut. Supporters point to Superfund's accomplishments, such as this new park in a poor section of Oakland. Before EPA came on the scene, a demolished battery factory used to leach lead into the soil. Scientists say that such lead in the soil can be eaten by small children, causing brain damage and other problems. No illness has been reported here, but EPA Superfund official Keith Takata says if the budget is cut, many sites would not get cleaned up. He points to some already neglected because of last year's cuts.
KEITH TAKATA, EPA Superfund: We have a big groundwater site in Southern California that's shut down right now. We have a pesticide site in Arizona we're not doing. We have a plating shop in Los Angeles that's not getting done.
MR. MICHELS: But critics point to the fact that only 346 of 1300 toxic sites nationwide have been cleaned up, a problem mostly unrelated to budget cuts.
TOM MOORE: It's been an extraordinarily wasteful program. It, a vast amount of the money on Superfund has gone for lawyers, accountants, environmental research firms who've studied the thing, and very little has gone to actually cleaning up any sites.
MR. MICHELS: Takata says lawyers and accountants are as essential as bulldozers to plow through the myriad of legal complications and claims and to clean up sites far more complex than was anticipated.
KEITH TAKATA: We thought we were going to come in and do little clean-ups like you see here, where people are just scooping up dirt. What we ran into, instead, were very complicated sites, groundwater sites that are going to take twenty and thirty years to do, mining sites, all kinds of sites that people never thought about.
MR. MICHELS: Recently, proposed cutbacks to EPA and other programs brought environmentalists together at the capitol. They gathered 1.2 million signatures for delivery to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, protesting what they call a rollback of 25 years of environmental progress. Their cries may have been heard. Some Republicans have softened attacks on environmental programs. Agency officials still fear a reduced budget will hurt the environment, while critics maintained it could force the EPA to operate more efficiently and with less interference in the marketplace. In any case, the EPA budget remains unresolved and the subject of intense debate.