Rebuilding the EPA

Rebuilding the EPA
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Many of the nation’s most important public health, environmental and scientific institutions will need significant reinvestments in staff, research and technology if they are to fulfill their missions in the future. The need for such rebuilding stems from anti-science and anti-regulatory decisions of the Trump administration but also from years of bipartisan neglect. Failure to implement a rebuilding strategy will result in lives lost or impaired from pollution and disease, economic disruption from climate change and further erosion in government’s ability to provide for the public’s wellbeing.

No agency is in greater need of repair than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Trump administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget will reduce EPA’s resources to historic lows of $6.6 billion (adjusted for inflation) — levels not seen since 1976 — even as Congress has mandated additional responsibilities and new environmental problems emerged.

Five fundamental investments are needed to enable EPA to protect public health and the environment. Cleaning up past pollution while minimizing future environmental threats that science has already identified represent the bookend challenges for such investments. They should:

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Rebuild scientific, economic and enforcement capabilities. Public health and environmental protection depend upon several pillars of information and talent: science to assess the magnitude of threats; economic analysis to estimate the costs and benefits of proposed regulatory actions; and rigorous enforcement to achieve compliance across regulated entities. EPA’s workforce continues to age. Coupled with a Trump budget proposal to further reduce staffing by 30 percent, a turnaround is needed to repopulate core skills with adequate resources by a minimum of 50 percent within the next two years. 

Link climate change to domestic pollution. As the planet continues to warm at a rate beyond the expectations of most independent climate scientists, it worsens domestic and global pollution. Health effects from particulates produced by consumption of fossil fuels, ground level ozone emissions from motor vehicles and aggravated health stresses to people with preexisting cardiovascular and respiratory problems will intensify in a warmer world. Sources of many of these pollutants are currently regulated, but climate change has introduced new exposures from more frequent and intensive heat waves, forest fires, hurricanes and storm surges that lead to contaminated drinking water, leakage of chemicals and discharge of untreated wastewaters.  

Invest in next generation infrastructure. Flint, Mich., is the best known example of how deteriorating drinking water infrastructure can devastate a community, but there are literally thousands of potential Flints across rural areas, small communities and larger urban regions. America has significantly underinvested in water supply, sewage treatment, food inspection and other systems that provide the lifeline to daily existence and personal security from contamination and disease. Technologies that detect smaller amounts of pollution, prevent waste of drinking water through smart metering and trace the movement of contaminants across air, land and water media likewise represent necessary additions for upgrading previous generations’ environmental investments.

Enter the age of digital technology for the environment. As the world has embraced the era of digital technologies, the field of environmental protection lags behind. Social media and other technology platforms literally flood the world with new kinds of data, and information technologies have yielded big data programs, analytics software, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, to name a few. There are major opportunities to apply data and technologies to solve long-standing health and environmental problems. Outcomes can include improving urban air quality through reduced traffic congestion, conserving potable water supplies, developing less toxic materials and preserving natural habitats and biodiversity.

Make social justice an integral part of environmental protection. Since the founding of EPA in 1970, higher levels of pollution within communities of color and lower income neighborhoods have received a low priority in policymaking, budgeting and staffing. This pattern continues despite growing scientific evidence that such populations receive disproportionate pollution exposures from power plants, refineries and chemical production, storage facilities and other sources of contamination. Their health and economic vulnerabilities are immediately evident during disruptions from climate change (like floods and heat waves) and the ongoing pandemic. Environmental justice must occupy a more central role in revitalizing America’s economy, environment and social harmony.

Rebuilding the EPA will require money, political will and an abundance of leadership. As importantly, it needs to stimulate creativity to rethink the persistence of old problems while embracing the next generation of talent and technology to reflect core commitments of innovation and opportunity that America needs to hold dear.

Dr. Terry F. Yosie is the former director of EPA’s Science Advisory Board and former president & CEO of the non-profit World Environment Center.