Never Clean Enough for Government Work

Rich Trzupek16 Aug, 2020 5 Min Read
Nothing but gray skies...

Six former EPA Administrators have published a letter which offers some thinly veiled criticism of the current administration’s environmental policies and proposed rethinking the Agency’s mission moving forward. What might be the key to sound environmental protection in the future? More money for the EPA. Surprise, surprise.

Here's their letter:

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I have been involved with environmental regulatory activity since 1985. What follows is a open letter reply to ex-admins letter. It’s penned by a paid-my-own-way through college chemist son of a south-side Chicago steelworker. I must add that I’m quite certain I have been on more factory floors across this country over the last thirty-five years than these six ex-EPA officials combined.

Dear Messrs Thomas and Reilly and Madams Browner, Whitman, Jackson and McCarthy:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the future of the United States EPA and of environmental protection in general. I trust your lives as ex-EPA administrators have been fulfilling. It certainly appears that they have been profitable. You have variously parlayed your EPA credentials into powerful executive positions, seats on the boards of prominent public and private organizations and many advisory roles.

That’s not a criticism. You have only done what countless of other cabinet officials have done upon leaving government service. As one who continues to believe in the virtues of capitalism, I’m glad to see that it works for you too. However, one may fairly observe the common-thread that ties together your post-government employment: more EPA regulation directly benefits you and the organizations with which you are associated. More EPA regulation makes your roles more important and one’s financial compensation is usually a function of one’s importance.

You all claim to be very committed to unbiased, transparent scientific study. Yet, in your letter you quote precisely two statistics, both of which are virtually meaningless. The first is that EPA spending today is approximately half of what it was in 1980 during Reagan’s first term. The second is to cite an Office of Management and Budget study claiming that environmental regulation is so incredibly profitable it’s a wonder that private investors haven’t started up their own environmental protection agencies.

There are other statistics available you know. Surely you ran across them during your tenures. For instance, you might have cited EPA statistics that show how much air quality has improved over the last forty years; statistics that demonstrably prove how much better air quality has been during President Trump’s first term than during President Obama’s first term; statistics that prove that a higher percentage of Americans have access to high quality drinking water than most other countries on earth; statistics that document how modern waste management and landfill designs have done an incredible job in protecting ground water. The list goes on and on and on, in any environmental media you can name. Air, water and soil; we are as clean a nation as we have ever been in the industrial age and all of you know it.

But knowing it and admitting it are different things, aren’t they? Thus you give us this absurd, unsupported – and unsupportable – statement:

Fifty years ago, pollution was visible and unrelenting throughout our country. Today, less visible but equally dangerous environmental hazards threaten communities in ways that differ place to place, person to person.

While I can understand some staffer coming up with such drivel, congratulating themselves on their ability to coin a clever phrase, I cannot understand any responsible person in a position to influence public-policy affixing their signature to a document that includes it.

What exactly are these “equally dangerous environmental hazards” that have somehow slipped under the radar? Pretty sure that somebody in the media would be interested in that story. What hidden hazards today are as dangerous as rivers so polluted they actually caught fire, or a Great Lake that was declared “dead”? What toxic exposure incident this century comes anywhere close to the Love Canal disaster?

The Mistake by the Lake, 1969

Most of you are old enough to remember that prior to 1970 most industrial sources of air pollution were uncontrolled, spewing huge black plumes of soot into the sky; that the lack of tailpipe emissions standards filled crowded freeways with a stinking fog; to visualize that clearly-visible orange haze of urban ozone that you saw flying above major cities back then. Point out the most socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhood you can and there is no way that its residents are dealing with anything close to the same sort of risks and environmental damage that we were experiencing fifty years ago.

You have also apparently collectively forgotten the simple fact that most day to day enforcement and control activity occurs at the state level, not at the federal level. The EPA is primarily there to ensure that the states are doing their jobs in accordance with applicable statutes and regulations. The states are in the trenches, not the feds. Between the states doing most of the heavy lifting and corporate America revising it’s seventies-era “I don’t care” to today’s “if we don’t care, we’re screwed” attitude toward the environment today, there is much less for the EPA to do in the far cleaner nation we are blessed with in 2020.

The EPA isn’t being funded at 1980 levels because it doesn’t have 1980 levels of problems to deal with and most of what remains is managed by the states. Simply put, EPA is a victim of our mutual success in making huge, meaningful environmental progress over the last fifty years. While there will and always should be a role for EPA in maintaining environmental stewardship, creating make-work programs to artificially inflate that role should never be part of the Agency’s mission.

With sincere congratulations and condolences on your success,


A final note: the mainstream media has made a big deal over the fact that the letter was signed by three administrators who served under Republican administrations, and three who served under Democrats. This is an artificial, immaterial distinction. Prior to President Trump, every EPA administrator under Republican presidents was virtually indistinguishable from EPA administrators under Democrat presidents. Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes treated environmental protection as a cheap, “give in” issue. All willingly advanced all but the most extreme parts of the environmentalist agenda and all hired EPA administrators who would do so. The belief seemed to be that if they “gave in” they would get credit for advancing a progressive cause, at relatively little political cost.

This never worked. The three Republican signatories to the letter, Thomas, Reilly and Whitman, were beat up as regularly by the opposition and its media allies as the three Democrats, Browner, Jackson and McCarthy were celebrated. No one would describe either Thomas or Whitman as conservative, and Reilly – who supported Hillary in the last election – is clearly a RINO these days. This letter is not about representatives of two parties coming together to chart a new course for the EPA, it’s yet another attempt to protect the swamp from further drainage.

Rich Trzupek is a chemist and air quality expert who has worked with industry and the EPA for over thirty five years. He is the author of Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry and other works. He lives in the Chicago area.


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