The next president ought to turn his attention to the Environmental Protection Agency right away because President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made EPA into a pollution protection agency.
From the moment of its inception, in December 1970, EPA was caught in a trap. The agency copied its predecessors – the giant Departments of Agriculture; Interior; and Health, Education and Welfare.
EPA relied too heavily on "end-of-the pipe" pollution controls that failed to eliminate toxins from our neighborhoods, workplaces and bodies. This meant that EPA granted factories and farms a daily quota of pollution – and by extension, if we're being honest – gave permits to harm or kill a predetermined number of Americans.
Despite the defects of such "regulation," we have made some progress. Rivers no longer burst into flames and the air is less visibly polluted.
Behind the veil of "clean skies," however, smog and soot and very small toxic particulate matter are still pouring out of the pipes of cars, trucks, the containerized shipping industry that drives global commerce, airplanes, incinerators, large farms and factories. These microscopic particles cause inflammation and injury to the lungs and the blood, killing thousands and condemning many more to life with asthma. Runoff from agribusiness, industry and suburban trophy lawns still flows through our (non-burning) rivers, creating dead zones off our shores and sickening swimmers on our beaches.
This is happening because industries have become experts at delaying and manipulating the work of EPA through political pressure and legal tactics. And EPA analysts cut and paste corporate-generated studies and analysis into their findings. As a result, the EPA often acts as if it were protecting the earnings of regulated industries rather than the public's health.
In 1982, for example, I came across information on toxaphene, an insect poison that had replaced DDT. American farmers, especially those cultivating cotton in the South, sprayed about 200 million pounds of this cancer-causing insecticide every year.
The data on toxaphene stunned me. Toxaphene created its own fallout. Wherever farmers sprayed it, most of the chlorine-like chemical would become airborne. Toxaphene was floating 1,000 miles north from the fields of Alabama and Louisiana to drop into the Great Lakes.
I could not ignore this evidence. I knew that the bosses of the pesticide division in Reagan's EPA had the damning evidence and did nothing. Given the gravity of the environmental threat, I informed Rep. Sidney Yates. Yates, the chairman of the Interior Subcommittee in theAppropriations Committee, was a Democrat representing Chicago and, therefore, Lake Michigan. His wife also happened to be in the hospital at the time, undergoing treatment for cancer. Yates acted fast. On July 23, 1982, he announced he would introduce legislation to ban toxaphene. He kept his promise and EPA had to ban the insecticide.
It should not take whistle-blowing or congressional intervention to eliminate toxic substances, especially those causing cancer. EPA should adopt a pollution prevention approach that focuses on phasing out carcinogens and polluting technologies.
An early opportunity for the agency in this field is to phase out dry cleaning that uses perchloroethylene, a toxic solvent. California has already adopted a phase-out of perc, citing nontoxic alternative technologies such as commercial wet cleaning.
Mandates to eliminate pollution rather than limit emissions can save lives. This approach can also help transform moribund industries through the application of green chemistry and closed-loop manufacturing. In the case of farming, sustainable agriculture would give us wholesome food while revitalizing rural America.
I hope that the next administration will have the common sense – and vision – to breathe new energy into an agency that has yet to live up to its founding promise.