In a recent speech, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson commented that many folks don’t remember how polluted the country was 40 years ago when EPA was created, so they now wonder about EPA’s mission. At the time, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River often caught fire, and cities such as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles were regularly entombed in a haze of smog.
I was a child then, but I do remember family trips from Annapolis to Baltimore, when we could see the brown cloud resting over the city and smell its sulfuric rotten egg stench long before we arrived at its black soot-covered buildings. In the days before add-on pollution controls, we sometimes hung wet laundry outside in the “fresh air” only to find it covered in soot from the local Naval Academy power plant and (ironically) laundry facility.
Times have changed. Administrator Jackson is right that we have made huge improvements during the past 40 years. I also agree that it is possible to make further environmental improvements and still grow our economy, but I don’t always agree that EPA’s proposals accomplish that goal. I think there is a tendency for different offices to operate in “silos,” focusing on one narrow area and “pushing the limit” on controls of that one thing, even if it would cost billions of dollars and provide minimal benefits, and even if spending a fraction of that money on another issue under the jurisdiction of another silo at EPA would yield significant benefits.
I am an environmental pragmatist. In my view, the public interest would be better served if the leadership at EPA looked at the big picture—above the silo level—and focused the agency’s and society’s resources on what makes the most sense, so that we get the biggest improvements for the buck—for health, the environment and economic well-being.