OPINION: Attacks on EPA are shortsighted

As Congress faces the very real challenges of cutting federal spending and putting the country on the path to a balanced budget, it faces predictable pushback each time it identifies a program to cut. The magnitude of what lawmakers are trying to accomplish argues for a thoughtful approach that separates out short-term political and ideological cuts from the larger, more impactful ones. 

The debate over the future of the Environmental Protection Agency is one of those debates where an ideological agenda, disguised as budget cutting, will result in a short-term political statement at a long-term cost in dollars and health.

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President Nixon created the EPA in recognition that Americans’ health and environment would continue to deteriorate if pollution was not curtailed. American people asked the federal government to address this area, where states and businesses had not or would not act. Concurrently, Congress worked across the aisle to pass the Clean Air Act 73-0 in the Senate and 374-1 in the House and our economy has thrived.

Because of EPA regulation of a variety of areas, including automobiles and industry, the air is cleaner in America. Compared to 1970, we have three times more cars on the road, and yet we have a fraction of the pollution. Air is not the only beneficiary of EPA action — waterways have been cleaned, providing recreational and drinking water around the country. In 1970 Lake Erie was written off completely; it now supports a multi-million dollar fishing industry.

It is this kind of long-term thinking that our Congress needs to foster. Yes, environmental protection costs money. But let us not forget that the EPA was started because people were being hospitalized in record numbers during bad air days and rivers were spontaneously combusting due to contaminants. If economic success is our goal, we must remember that the cost of remediation is far more than prevention, to say nothing of the value of human lives saved. 

Despite the achievements that have been made since EPA was established, we are far from free of the environmental challenges facing our country and we are learning about new ones every day. Asthma is currently at epidemic levels in this country — it is the single largest cause of missed school days. We know asthma is, at the very least, exacerbated by particulate matter in the air, and it is incumbent upon us as a nation to address this problem, quite literally, for the health of our children.

The challenge of environmental regulation is that every action requires people to spend money or change their behavior for a problem they may not even recognize. Telling a rancher that he cannot graze his cattle in the nearby river because of the pollution being created for the town downstream doesn’t add an ounce of fat to his beef herd, but will cost him money.

Ultimately it is this tension that speaks to where and why the EPA is needed. I have seen firsthand that many businesses act in accordance with the law and even go beyond what the law requires in terms of minimizing the environmental effects of their products and services. Unfortunately there are others that knowingly game the system, costing all Americans. I would hope even the most ardent local government advocates among us recognize the role of the federal government in regulating pollutants that respect no geo-political boundaries.

There are certainly aspects of the agency that could and should be improved. Congress’s original organization of the EPA does not recognize the environmental and climate diversity throughout our country. One size often does not fit all, and the agency needs to be able to be more flexible, and include the carrot in addition to the stick when it comes to regulating the business community. Cost-benefit analysis is important as we learn more about what is in our water and air and yet don’t fully understand the impacts.

Most importantly, Congress needs to consider the long-term cost of short-term decisions. Eliminating the EPA, or vastly curtailing its ability to regulate pollutants as science develops and identifies more threats to our health, may save a few dollars now, but the long-term cost to our society can be great. Using the scalpel rather than the hatchet is much more challenging, but it is the kind of thoughtful approach we need.

Whitman served as the ninth administrator of the EPA, from 2001-2003.