poisoned waters

William Ruckelshaus

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In 1970, he became the first head of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He served as the agency's leader under President Nixon until 1973 and again under President Reagan from 1983 to 1985. He now lives in Seattle, Wash., where he is chairing the Puget Sound Partnership. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 3, 2008.

“You had to reassure the public that this was a problem the government was taking seriously. We had to be tough. We had to issue standards and we had to enforce them.

You actually sort of fell into administering environmental laws. Tell me about Indiana, what you did [there].

My first exposure to problems relating to the environment was the Indiana attorney general's office in the early '60s. I was assigned by the attorney general to the state board of health, which is where all these problems were dealt with back in those days. ...

What kind of pollution were you dealing with in Indiana?

Air pollution, water pollution. ... It was smell, touch and feel pollution in those days. People, once it was called to their attention, primarily by television, they all said: "Yeah, that's a real problem. We can see air pollution; we can see and smell water pollution." So what they were seeing and hearing about as the environmental movement sort of exploded on the country in the late '60s was all reinforced by their personal experience on their way to work in the morning. ...

Where were you on Earth Day, 1970?

Earth Day in 1970 I was in the Department of Justice in charge of the Civil Division. … I was not part of the environmental movement in those days. But I certainly remember it because it was a big issue. It exploded on the country, and it forced a Republican administration and a president which had never really -- he had never thought about this very much, President Nixon. It forced him to deal with it, because the public said: "This is intolerable. We've got to do something about it." …

What did you see your job as being when you got the agency started? …

It seemed to me we had a societal issue, and that was the federal government had never been very active in trying to deal with pollution abatement or protection of the environment or public health. … It was left up to the states. And my impression from having had that experience in the state of Indiana was the states weren't good regulators of industry on the question of health, safety and the environment. They had competed so strongly for industry being located in their borders that they just weren't good regulators, or there wasn't much political support for going after polluters and after this kind of problem.

So what you needed to do was ... to focus the attention on the central government, set some reasonable standards and then go about enforcing them.

That was important to do because the public was all riled up about this problem -- for justifiable reasons, in my judgment -- and they needed to be reassured that their government was responding to their demands that something be done about this problem. Having the opportunity to do that in a federal agency and act responsibly toward a legitimate public demand was well worth doing. So we had to select some big, visible polluters -- both industrial and municipal -- go after them, make sure the public understood we were being responsive to their concerns, and that would energize the agency and get us in a position to do things that needed to be done in order to address the problem.

So you had to enforce the law. You had to be a tough regulator.

That's right, in order to be successful you had to reassure the public that this was a problem the government was taking seriously. We had to be tough. We had to issue standards and we had to enforce them. ... There were targets galore, and most of the people running big American manufacturing facilities in those days believed this was all a fad; it was going to go away, and all they had to do was sort of hunker down until the public opinion subsided, public concern subsided, and it would go away. ...

We went after U.S. Steel. There was Dow Chemical. We went to a national mayor's conference down in Atlanta, at the request of now-Senator, then-Mayor [Richard] Lugar of Indianapolis. … I told him when I got there we're going to announce that we're going to sue Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit, who are in violation of requirements for treatment of sewage going into these waterways around their community. ...

At the same time, we had hearings for the major automobile companies. … We turned them down for requests for additional time to meet the [Clean Air] standards that had been set by the Congress. ...

How did Nixon react to your being tough on the auto industry?

I didn't talk to him about it. Who I talked to was [John] Ehrlichman, who was general counsel at first and then a close staff confidante, and Ehrlichman would take the messages to the president about what I intended to do. He was very helpful, and he would say, "We've got to keep this from the old man." That's what they referred to him as, "the old man." And I'd say, "Well, I'll talk to him about it and tell him why I think this is important to do."

"No, God, no," he said. "Don't do that." He said he'd blow up. He'd think you were pushing around these people he admired. He was a great admirer of the captains of industry.

Nixon?

Nixon was. … He admired them. He didn't know much about the environment, and frankly, he wasn't very curious about it. He never asked me the whole time I was at EPA -- the first time he appointed me or the second time -- "Is the air really dirty? Is something wrong with the water? What are we worried about here?" Reagan asked me that several times, when I worked there the second time. Nixon never did.

He would warn me. He said, "You've got to be worried about that Epa." He called it "Epa." He was the only one in the country that called it Epa. Everbody else called it --

EPA.

EPA. Either EPA or "Eepa." He called it Epa. And he said, "Those people over there, now, don't get captured by that bureaucracy and all the stuff those people are trying to get you to do." ...

Did you recommend that President Nixon sign the Clean Water Act?

Yes. It passed in October 1972. He was in the final weeks of his campaign against [Sen. George] McGovern [D-S.D.]. The way you communicated with Nixon as president was to send a memo stating your position as to what should be done about a given issue. ... So I recommended that he sign the Clean Water Act. That recommendation leaked to The New York Times two or three days after I'd sent it. …

Was he [upset]?

He was mad, yeah. I heard it indirectly. He didn't tell me directly. … Ehrlichman said he was mad, that he sort of felt boxed in by it, but he still vetoed it. It didn't hurt him in the election. He was winning so overwhelmingly.

So you recommend that he sign the Clean Water Act; he vetoes it. Congress overrides him, passes it, and in his book, he claims credit to pass the Clean Water Act.

... He thought it was one of the issues that Americans dealt with that weren't really important; that it was sort of the soft side of politics. And he felt he needed to deal with it because it obviously was a public concern. But he didn't think it was an important issue. He didn't think it was something that he should devote a lot of his time to. And then when he saw the impact on these people he admired --

These captains of industry --

Yeah, they were supporters of his, but it wasn't because they were supporting him financially that he admired them, I didn't think. I think he just admired them. That was the kind of person he admired. And he saw the impact it was having on those firms. He became much less supportive of what we were trying to do than he had been originally. ...

As the first administrator of EPA, some of your biggest fights were within the administration, with the White House?

... There were a lot of people who were economic ideologues who just don't like this kind of social regulation, for the government to intervene on behalf of health, safety and the environment. They almost always believed the government went too far. The benefits associating with that regulation were nowhere near the cost, and they just don't like that kind of regulation. ... In any Republican White House, the forces are weighted against you. ...

When you went after the big polluters, you sued them; you took them to court. What was the reaction of U.S. Steel?

Oh, boy, they didn't like it. I remember going up to see Ed Cott, who was the CEO of U.S. Steel. I'd paid a courtesy call on him and said: "I am here to let you know that these laws are serious, that we're going to have to comply. I'm not trying to hold you up as any kind of evil person, but nevertheless, compliance is necessary. I just thought you and I ought to have a conversation about it." He said, "You know, we don't like you very much, and we certainly don't like your agency." And I said: "Well, if that's your attitude, then we are probably going to get in a fight over it. But I don't think you need to, if you make a reasonable effort to come into compliance with these laws."

Those guys, that original group of people who were in charge of these companies, really didn't believe this was a serious problem. They thought it was an interference with an important part of the whole economy of the country; that once people understood this, this current fad having to do with the environment would go away and they'd be left alone again to do what they wanted. ...

Do you think regulation and law was the right way to go, or do you think that [industries] basically had a good idea with the voluntary approach?

... I think it's not an either/or proposition in my mind. It worked against the automobile companies because essentially you had a single source. It was just like a point source of pollution in Detroit where you could go and enforce this law. If you try to enforce a law against all steel companies or all chemical companies throughout the country and use these standard setting enforcement deadline processes to achieve it, it's too complex. It doesn't work for widely dispersed industries with different kinds of problems all over the country. So to a certain extent I think the Congress got misled by the success that we had against the automobile companies and the Clean Air Act and tried the same thing for other forms of pollution.

I think you can make progress by setting standards and by setting deadlines, and you certainly have to enforce them. Otherwise nobody pays any attention to them. …

I was overconfident, I mean in [the] sense that I oversimplified the problem. I thought, because of my perspective as a state official, the problem really was [that] the federal government was the only one that could issue these regulations and make them stick. …

When did you discover that it wasn't that easy?

About three months into my first stint at EPA, I began to see there isn't the unanimity among scientists, among a lot of other people, about the nature of these problems, how low you have to get the levels of pollution in order to protect public health or protect the environment. … There was debate over the kind of technology that was necessary to get this done, the cost of it was what it would do to the economy, how you balanced all these competing interests. It's just a lot more complex than I realized when we started.

… What do you find when you have come back to EPA for the second time a decade later, and what do you need to do?

When I came back to EPA in April 1983, it was a real mess. The Reagan administration had appointed Anne Burford as the EPA administrator. She had been a state legislator in Colorado. … She had no experience administering a big agency like this, and she believed the rhetoric of the campaign that essentially the federal government is your enemy, that the people that are working in this agency are really working against what the Republicans believed and what they thought should happen. ...

Well, if you go into a federal agency like that and you let everybody know -- and there are plenty of ways of doing that -- they are the enemy, within a week you'll be right. They will be the enemy. … So what we had was an agency really working against itself with political appointees sort of treating a lot of the people who were there as though they didn't know what they were doing and that they were instruments of illegitimate exercise of power. ...

And so what I had to do is just get rid of all those presidential appointees, 13 of them. We only kept one. We kept one guy, a good guy. He was on an air program. The rest of them, gone, all 12. ...

[The] first thing we do was have an all-hands meeting in the basement of EPA over in Waterside Mall. In the Washington area there are probably 1,000 people who work at EPA. We got them all together and said: "This agency is going to run the way it used to. It's going to do its job under the law. That is what our responsibilities are, and we have got to go to it." ... All you had to do is say, "We're going to do what we're supposed to do as public servants, so get on with it," and that lifted so much of the concern that people had about it. …

Do you think that looking either back from today's vantage point or looking at it from the vantage point of, say, the mid-80s that the Clean Water Act was adequate? …

The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act are tough enough. It's the problem of nonpoint source pollution is so much more complex than going after these big point sources. The visible fights we'd had with people like ... U.S. Steel and Dow Chemical and these other big corporations or big municipalities that weren't doing an adequate job of treating sewage, the public was always on our side. They didn't have any sympathy for these guys, and they didn't even see any effect on them. …

When it comes to nonpoint source pollution -- the runoff from farms, city streets, suburban lots -- that's everybody else. That's not the big, visible, unsympathetic polluters; that's me and you and everybody else.

[Waterkeepers Alliance Chairman] Bobby Kennedy Jr. makes the argument that an industry like the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay is in effect dumping some of its cost on the rest of us, because we have to clean up the bay, the taxpayers, and it should be Big Chicken cleaning up its own manure. Do you agree with that? …

... I think he's right. If somebody is operating some kind of animal facility in which there is a concentration of those animals, and they are producing material that is getting into the water and contaminating it, they have got the responsibility for cleaning up. We have boatyards around here where the same thing is true in Puget Sound, where boatyards are treated as point sources by the Department of Ecology. They don't think of themselves that way, but it's an easier way to deal with them.

You are looking at a different form of industry is what you are saying.

Smaller, usually smaller. They don't have as much money. It's not as easy to put them on a permit and spell out in the permit exactly what they can discharge into the water. And then when you take those kind of smaller enterprises and you expand that to people that are going around living on farms and suburban areas, urban areas and the cumulative impact of their activities and how you control that cumulative impact, that's a much tougher problem. …

Should either EPA or the states or both be going after industries like that?

Sure. To me it's pretty simple. What you've got is the same problem of a concentrated amount of discharge going into a water[way] and contaminating it. You've got to get them to clean that up, and there are technologies and approaches that will accomplish that.

... You said to me Superfund is extremely difficult to implement. Why? ... What's the upside? What's the downside?

… Superfund was a federal effort to deal with what had essentially been a local contamination problem. ... We escalated that problem from the local governments all the way up to the federal government and said, "Go after the people whose waste has been disposed in these sites around the country, and by the way, anybody who has disposed waste there is jointly and severally liable for the impact of all the waste." So you could be responsible for, in theory, 2 percent of the waste and have to pay for the cleanup of the other 98 percent in addition to your own.

Well, that triggered a whole lot of lawsuits and all kinds of difficulty in having the central government come in and begin to deal with problems that were essentially local. ... There were lawsuits where EPA would have the responsibility for cleaning it up and then go back and sue the people whose waste was in there and force them to pay up. We'd have meetings in gymnasiums in towns because there wasn't any room big enough in the town to hold all the lawyers. There was one out in Kansas -- Farney, Kan. -- a kind of famous site in which we had 395 lawyers representing all the people whose waste were in those sites. …

How clean is clean is another issue that comes up. How much elimination of risk do we have to finance in order to clean this thing up? All those things get triggered by this law. ...

Under the law, there is a removal provision where the federal government can go in immediately if there is a hazard that is identifiable and real -- not just chronic but acute -- can go in and spend whatever money is necessary to alleviate that problem and then go back and charge the people whose waste is there for the whatever that cleanup was.

But if you look and see, under the Superfund law, that removal power is not used very often, because we don't have really a lot of these acute kinds of health risks associated with these sites. They're more long-term, chronic, cumulative kind of risk. And that just triggers all kinds of disputes and fights.

If you are an official of the EPA and you are a site manager for a specific [Superfund] site … is it really hard to enforce the law, or is the law fairly clear for you as the guy responsible?

It's hard to figure a way through, because it's often not clear what you ought to do in the first place to clean it up. What is the technology that's available to either you as a government official to clean it up and go back and charge them or to force them to do it? And even though there is this joint and several liability provision, you are trying to figure out who really ought to be paying what portion of the cleanup here. How immediate is the hazard? Are people really threatened, or [are] wildlife or others really threatened by this, or do we have some time to try to [figure it] out?

So if you are trying to make sure that the law is enforced, you are trying to be fair about it, and you are trying to do the right thing. You're not trying to get them to spend a lot of money just for the sake of spending the money, but you're really trying to effect some cleanup. It could be quite complicated, and it's not just 100 percent clear what you ought to do.

There's a lot more willingness on the part of the people whose wastes are in these sites to try to work through and come to a reasonable conclusion than there was when we started. ...

But you are saying the law is flawed and confusing.

It needs redress. I was on a commission that looked at amending the Superfund law to rationalize it, in effect, to make it work better. And there were environmental groups involved; there was industry involved; there were academics; there were people who lived around the sites. We had all the stakeholders at the table, and we came to a conclusion and took it to the Congress, and we got within one vote of passing it. I think it would have been a much better law as we have recommended it. We had all this support for it from these various groups, but it failed, and we have never had sort of another window to come along to try to amend it. ...

But I don't think EPA, frankly, is inhibited where they really find a health threat, somebody is really at risk. I don't think they are inhibited about going in and cleaning it up or forcing it to happen through some kind of enforcement action. They may not do it for some reason, but I don't think that the law is deficient in giving them the power to do that if they really want to exercise it.

You were on the launching of the Chesapeake Bay Program. Why did you guys launch it, and whose idea was it?

The Chesapeake Bay was an interesting issue. It's a very famous bay, obviously. Most people in Washington are aware of it. A lot of people have houses or places over there. They go over there in the summer and spend time. And it was really in trouble. The crabs were declining, the oysters were declining, and there were big pollution problems. The rockfish were in real trouble.

And so what they needed to do is get all those governors that were in the states around the Chesapeake Bay along with the federal government to sort of commit to a coordinated effort to identify the nature of the problem and clean it up. And it had a lot of appeal for these governors, and the mayor of the District of Columbia was involved, to get together and make broad pledges about cleaning it up.

The tough part, of course, is implementing all those pledges. And it takes time -- and your governors change, and some governors are more enthusiastic about it than others. ...

Some people have said that it looks as though, with all those pledges and the setting of targets … that [the Chesapeake Bay Program] really is a matter of goals rather than controls. In your mind, did it represent a shift from regulation to voluntary compliance?

… You've got to have some regulatory framework that provides a default position if voluntarism doesn't work, so that the people who are asked to do something voluntarily feel there is some risk to them if they don't do it.

The best way is to align their economic interests with the environmental goals you have. Then you really make progress. And that's where this whole effort to identify the goods and services that an ecosystem produces and the economic value -- like drinking water and water for irrigation and all kinds of uses of water, keeping it relatively clean -- as an economic value for people. And they'll buy into it a lot more than they will if it's an environmental value alone, particularly if it costs them a lot of money. ...

I think you've got to do both. I think you have got to go after the really egregious violators and show that the government is willing to take action if necessary, and then under that set of auspices get the people together and say: "Come on now, we've got to go to work here and clean it up. We're not trying to push you around or take you to court; we're trying to do something reasonable." ...

Say to a person who is a farmer, for instance, whose land is going to be greatly diminished in value as a result of what he needs to do, "We recognize you're being asked to do a disproportionate share of this social good here for restoration of salmon or a watershed of some kind, so we'll share some of that cost with you." ...

... Was there sufficient accountability written into the Chesapeake Bay Program so people could be held to a standard?

In the Chesapeake Bay Program, there were all these pledges made to achieve standards, achieve levels of pollution. There wasn't an accountability system in the fact that there was anything that happened to you if you didn't meet the pledge. You were probably out of office by the time the pledge came around to actually be. And what the General Accountability Office at the federal level suggested -- and I think they're absolutely right -- is even if you set a goal that's 10, 15, 20 years out, you've got to set benchmarks along the way that say are we moving toward that goal. …

You've got an upstream/downstream problem in the Chesapeake Bay. New York and Pennsylvania and West Virginia, believe it or not, are all part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. ... Is that what you were trying to grapple with, that problem of states that were part of the watershed but didn't see a connection to other watershed?

Yeah, I think we were, exactly. And Pennsylvania is the best example. … Bill Scranton was the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania at the time, and he used to come to these meetings, but the governor wouldn't. There wasn't the same level of commitment in Pennsylvania, and that was a big part of the problem. …

What is your assessment? Did it work, looking back on it?

I don't think it worked very well. Like all of these things, we've made more progress than we've all been willing to give ourselves credit for, but still we've got big problems there. I mean, if you look at the kind of report card that a place like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gives the overall effort, they don't give it very high marks.

It flunks.

Yeah, well, that's not a very high mark. …

What do you say to people who say that you as the head of the EPA at the time the Chesapeake Bay Program was set up should have done exactly what you have just said: set standards, set goals and mandated results?

We did, first of all, pull the people together, get them all to make these pledges. They do have authority under the Clean Water Act in particular to enforce a lot of these. … It's a question of willingness to use them. ...

Yes, if we had been more aware that these pledges were just paper pledges and not something they were really serious about, then I think we should have set up some kind of enforcement process that was more effective than we had when we started.

But once it becomes apparent that you lack that enforcement power or at least the willingness to exercise the power that exists, then you have got to begin to put pressure either [on] the states or your own agency to do what needs to be done to succeed.

… By the time ... people collectively understood that the Chesapeake Bay Program was not on track, had the political climate and the urgency about environmental cleanup dramatically changed? …

What's changed is the political support for the necessary enforcement authorities and powers and laws necessary to clean up the environment. It goes in cycles. ...

And I think the answer is yes, in the '90s there was less enthusiasm for enforcing environmental laws, providing new environmental structures to achieve results. We had a vice president then, [Al] Gore, who is about as enthusiastic about the environment as anybody ever close to the White House has ever been, and yet he wasn't able to guide us toward a more enforceable set of programs to replace, like, the Chesapeake Bay. ...

We are now going through a cycle in which global climate change has caused all kinds of concerns about the environment to arise. We are also going through a bad economic cycle, and it may dampen that environmental enthusiasm going forward. It's part of the landscape that you have to deal with. ...

… From your perspective, both as an expert and as a resident, what is the state of Puget Sound? …

All those questions about Puget Sound are not as simple as they sound. The Sound is -- parts of it -- in trouble. ... There are plenty of problems that we need to deal with.

We have a million and a half people coming in here in the next 15 years, in addition to the 4 million that we now have. How are we going to house those people, transport them, treat their waste? If we do it the same way we've done with the 4 million who are here now, we are just going to put added burdens on the Sound that probably are really going to be overwhelming for the Sound's ability to assimilate all that. ...

I don't think we can scare [people] into doing something about it. I think we need to paint a picture of what a healthy Sound is all about, how it will benefit them as citizens in this area of environmental and health standpoint, and how it will affect them economically. …

How would you do that?

We need to show what the vision of a healthy Puget Sound is all about, what it would mean to people who live here. … They are not all of the problem by any means, but they are part of it, and they need to understand what that part is and take actions individually. …

As there are more of us in the world and as there is more technology and there is more wealth, all of those things combined put a lot of pressure on the ecosystems that we share with other living things. And it's just so often in the past we have treated man as separate from the ecosystem -- that we need to isolate ecosystems in wilderness areas or parks or other places around the world. …

The truth is that isn't going to work. We haven't been able to exclude man from these ecosystems in order to preserve them, so we need to think of the preservation of the living things that make up an ecosystem with man as part of them. … And that means in making decisions about transportation about housing, about development, you've got to take into account the impact of those decisions on the ecosystems. Instead of using up the natural capital air, water and land we're given and we've treated as free, you've got to begin to return it to the ecosystem, and we can return it in the process of development by marking it as a portion of the cost of development to put some of that natural capital back. …

You're saying here the problem initially was, it's them, the big industrial polluters. Today the problem is it's us, all of us.

I don't want to overstate it, because it's still in some cases the polluters, and we still have to make sure that they are in compliance with the laws. But it's a much bigger proportion of it now that's all the rest of us that need to change the way we live. We need to have a set of rules that provide us the kind of freedom necessary to pursue our own lives and not destroy the environmental underpinning that makes that life meaningful or even possible economically. And that's a harder case to make, but it's a case that I think needs to be made if we're going to get all the people around here to support what we need to do, and I think we need to get them supported or we won't get there.

How critical is the problem with the environment, do you think, long term for us, for our survival as a species, for our economy and for our environment?

I think that our economic well-being ultimately depends on a healthy environment. And it's a hard case to make. I'm not saying it's immediately apparent that that's true. You could see Puget Sound being polluted. We still have ships coming in and out. There would be cargo. There wouldn't be any fish in it. We wouldn't be able to recreate in it. We wouldn't be able to swim in it, and there would be other problems associated with that. And so in one sense, the economy would go along.

In another sense, if we really have significant health problems here associated with water pollution and other issues and we don't address them, it begins to have a real economic impact on living here. And you know, you can see it in places like New Orleans, where if they don't protect themselves and associate themselves with the environment in such a way that it doesn't destroy them, then they can't live there. …

... Where do you come down on land-use regulation that is designed to protect elements of the environment which scientists say [are] necessary in order to protect the larger body of the environment?

I think, in the first place, that scientific judgment is hard to justify on a five-acre plot or two-and-a-half-acre plot or whatever. ... That's the problem with regulation to the landowner. Somebody comes on his land, says you can't do these things because it's a violation of our rule, our regulation. And if he's a farmer or somebody who really understands his own landscape, he knows that for that particular landscape, it may make no sense at all. While it may apply to the overall watershed, it doesn't make any sense.

Somehow we've got to move this scale out of these regulations in such a way that ... it doesn't act irrationally on a given farmer. ...

Are you saying you can't regulate these things because each piece of property is so individual?

No, I'm not saying you can't regulate it, but I am saying you ought to have a set of approaches or a plan that is sufficiently flexible that it does allow some variation on the regulation as long as the overall scheme can be kept in place. That's not easy. …

King County, [Wash.] is, again -- you pick a very complicated area, because you've got big urban areas like Seattle and Bellevue and cities around, and yet we still have 150,000 rural landowners in King County. It's the biggest rural-landowning county in all of Puget Sound, and those people are all over the map. Some of them are farmers; some of them are recreation landowners. There are all different kinds of people, and they do believe that when the county comes in and tells them what they can do with their land that oftentimes it doesn't make any sense on their land, and it's taking it away from them in some cases without giving them just compensation. …

But I do think it's possible to regulate it. I think it's necessary to regulate the way that land is developed if we are going to talk about preserving this, some semblance of the ecosystem here in King County. It's not going to be the pristine ecosystem that we had when we started. … We're not going to tear down Seattle and I-5 and everything else. That's not going to happen, so we have to think about what are the goods and services we want to see come out of this ecosystem and how do we need to, in a broader scale, regulate that ecosystem in order to make it work, in order to produce those goods and services. …

As the leader of the governor's new Puget Sound Initiative and [Puget Sound] Partnership, … what is the toughest problem to deal with?

The toughest problem is the one we just have been talking about. It's not any one single landowner's impact on the environment. It's the cumulative impacts of all of them.

Development has become our biggest problem?

It's not just development; it's land use itself.

Development is going to take place. ... It comes down to, where are people willing to live? When they come here, do they want a big house out on a five-acre tract that they want to put all kinds of amenities in it, or are they willing to live in some sort of different clustered housing in the same setting, only in closer proximity to one another? That's what the Cascade Land Conservancy is trying to do, and in some cases I think people will accept that kind of environment. But you've got to make the case to them that they will accept. …

Can you do that? I don't know. I honestly don't. I don't know. There are small places that have done that. Whether you can do it in a place as big as Puget Sound or not, I'm not sure. …

... Think back to the beginning of our conversation ... and the start of the EPA in the 1970s. We're in a different ball game now in terms of protecting and cleaning up the environment, it seems to me. What's happened here? Do we have a changed perception of the problem? Do we have a much more complicated problem? Do we have a changed political climate? ...

When we started, the primary focus of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act back in the '60s and '70s was public health, and that really gets people's attention. If air pollution is so bad health is being affected, or the same [with] water pollution, you can get their support for all kinds of expenditures. And when they don't see any economic impact on themselves -- [it's] on some big corporation to clean up or some big city to clean up the sewage -- they'll support it overwhelmingly.

Now we're in a much different set of conditions. But essentially, those big point sources in the country are under social control. They are not all controlled to the extent they should [be], and they haven't all gone away, and we've still got people who will violate it, and you always have to say that because people will get mad if you don't. But essentially they are under social control.

What isn't under social control is everything else we humans do in pursuing our daily lives, whether driving big cars in suburban areas, managing farms, living in cities. The way we do it is collectively having a bad impact on the environment, so we've got to understand what that collective impact is and make adjustments in the way we live so that we don't have that effect on the environment and we start restoring this natural capital.

Can we do that? I don't know, but I think [we can].

What is going to mobilize and energize and convince people?

I think what will do it is the vision of what living in a really healthy ecosystem is all about, how it affects them, how it affects their health and how it affects their pride and how it affects their sense of place and how it affects their economic well-being. And if we can make that case with enough persuasiveness, then I think you will be able to gain and maintain public support for what we are trying to do. And if you can make that case and were not effective at it, then I don't think we will get the public's ear.

... The dominant message, it seems to me, has changed from we are going to enforce [the law] … to now we've got to persuade people. ...

... Regulation only works, enforcement of laws only works, if there is public support for them. ...

posted april 21, 2009

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