Public Release: 

U.S. Pollution Control System Is Fragmented, Misdirected And Plagued By Poor Information, RFF Report Finds

Resources for the Future (RFF)

WASHINGTON, DC -- The pollution control system in the United States is fragmented and inefficient, targetting the wrong problems, and lacking in all kinds of information needed for effective decisionmaking, according to a report released today by Resources for the Future (RFF). Titled "Regulating Pollution: Does the U.S. System Work", the report is based on a comprehensive three-year examination of the pollution regulatory system, the first systematic evaluation of the nation's pollution control efforts to date. The full study will be published as a book by RFF at a later date.

Written by RFF's J. Clarence (Terry) Davies and Jan Mazurek, the report focuses largely on federal environmental protection efforts. It describes and evaluates the nine major federal environmental laws, the administrative decisionmaking system at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the federal-state division of labor that are the main elements of U.S. environmental policy.

"Government officials, elected representatives, the media, and the public have increasingly diverged about whether the U.S. pollution control regulatory system is performing satisfactorily," says Davies, director of RFF's Center for Risk Management and a former assistant administrator at EPA. "Some people point to the significant reduction in most air pollutants, the cleanup of major rivers, and the tangible progress made in improving environmental quality. Others point to the inefficiency and intrusiveness of regulations and the lack of progress in dealing with nonpoint sources of pollution or with global climate change. Our report is a distillation of what we know about the pollution control laws and programs in the United States. It is an evaluation of what is wrong and what is right about them to lay the groundwork for any changes that may be needed."

"The greatest strength of the U.S. pollution control system is its proven ability to reduce conventional pollutants generated by large point sources such as power plants and factories," says Davies. "It is a system that was developed to deal with the problems of the 1960s and 1970s, and it did a reasonably good job of addressing them. However, there are glaring gaps in EPA's performance."

"Fragmented" is the overwhelming adjective that comes to mind when describing America's pollution control system, says Davies.

"The system involves hundreds of detailed and rigid laws that are largely unrelated to each other, and lacking in any unified vision of environmental problems or EPA's mission," says Davies. "Perhaps this is not surprising given that the system of congressional committees and subcommittees dealing with environmental regulation is complex, the committees do not relate to each other, and there is no coherence to their approach either. These kinds of overlap and inconsistencies among the laws make priority-setting very difficult. The laws also are more concerned with how pollution is being controlled rather than if pollution is actually being controlled."

Regardless of how effectively EPA has reduced the levels of pollutants on which it is focused, says Davies, it is focusing on the wrong targets. For example, EPA is focusing almost exclusively on outdoor air pollution when a large part of the health risk comes from indoor air pollution. It is focusing on point sources of water pollution when the major problem today is nonpoint sources (runoff from farms and city streets and the deposition of pollutants from the air into water bodies). The study examined both EPA's spending priorities and spending by the private sector and by state and local governments.

All questions of comparative risk are further plagued by the inadequacy of information about the nature and severity of environmental problems, says Davies.

"There are not enough toxicity data on most chemicals to know whether they cause adverse effects," says Davies. "There are not enough monitoring data to know which pollutants people are exposed to. Knowledge about how pollutants travel from one part of the environment to another is woefully inadequate. We do not understand many fundamental aspects of the earth's ecology -- we do not understand the role of clouds in the earth's temperature balance, for instance. These are problems both of fundamental scientific knowledge and of inadequate data collection."

"For all its accomplishments, we conclude that the pollution control regulatory system is deeply and fundamentally flawed," says Davies. "There is no consensus about how to remedy these flaws. Not only do disagreements exist among the different interest groups concerned with pollution control, but even groups that seemingly have a common interest disagree with each other. There is no agreement among large corporations about decentralizing pollution control or about preserving the current regulations. There is no agreement among environmental groups about the utility of market mechanisms."

"While there is no consensus for a remedy, some agreement exists on the principles that should guide changes in pollution control and about the characteristics of a pollution control system for the next century," says Davies. "The United States does not need to wait for a consensus to act -- to do so would be to wait forever. Failure to make the changes will be costly to the economy, to the environment, and to every citizen."

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FOR MEDIA -- "Regulating Pollution: Does the U.S. System Work" is available at RFF's internet site ( under "Research, Programs and Reports." For the hard-copy report by fax, call (202) 328-5019 and leave your name, organization and phone and fax numbers.

FOR GENERAL PUBLIC -- "Regulating Pollution: Does the U.S. System Work" is available at RFF's internet site ( under "Research, Programs and Reports." It can be ordered in hard-copy by calling Johns Hopkins Press, RFF Customer Service, (410) 516-6955; cost: $9.95 + shipping and handling charges.

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Administrative decisionmaking for controlling pollution is centered in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was created in 1970 by combining a number of programs that had been located in several different cabinet departments and agencies. The centers of power within the agency are three offices oriented to environmental media -- air, water and solid waste. The culture of the agency is primarily legal in nature (every EPA administrator except one has been a lawyer), a result of the complexity of the laws, the importance of litigation, and the reliance on statutory provisions to accomplish the agency's goals. Senior EPA officials frequently interact with Congress, which oversees the agency.

There are nine major federal pollution control laws -- the Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act; the National Environmental Policy Act; the Pollution Prevention Act; the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Added to these major acts are hundreds of minor federal laws. Congress considers hundreds of environmental bills and sometimes enacts as many as twenty or thirty in each session.

In addition to EPA, many other federal agencies play essential roles in the U.S. pollution control system. The Department of Energy oversees the cleanup of hazardous materials at sites that were part of the nation's nuclear weapons complex. Nonpoint sources, the major contributor to water pollution, cannot be addressed without the cooperation of the Department of Agriculture. The Army Corps of Engineers is the primary regulator of the nation's wetlands. The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Commerce all conduct more environmental research than EPA. The Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy -- all part of the Executive Office of the President -- play important policy and coordinating roles in the pollution control regulatory system.

The courts play a significant role in the regulatory system. A majority of EPA's major rules are challenged in court due to the plethora of statutes, their detailed requirements, the traditional right of regulated industries to challenge the requirements, and the power that many of the laws give citizens to initiate court action to enforce legal provisions.

Because the major implementation burden for federal environmental statutes rests with the states, the most important agencies outside EPA are the state pollution control agencies. However, the 1990s have witnessed several important changes in the state-federal relationship. The support that state agencies traditionally have given to EPA has turned to opposition with the increasing competence of state agencies, decreases in funding from the federal government, political currents favoring decentralization, and actions by EPA and Congress that impose expensive obligations on states and localities without providing funding to meet the obligations ("unfunded mandates").

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In the last 20 years, the pollution control system has effectively reduced conventional pollutants generated by large sources such as power plants and factories.

The treatment of household or municipal sewage has improved dramatically. A 1988 EPA evaluation found that the number of people in communities receiving secondary or advanced levels of water treatment rose from 4 million in 1960 to 143.7 million in 1988.

EPA's regulation of aerosol propellants was the pioneering initial move in addressing the stratospheric ozone problem.

Thanks to the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the open burning of garbage, a widespread practice before the 1970s, has been virtually eliminated.

RCRA has also improved the methods used for handling hazardous waste. For example, land disposal of untreated hazardous waste has been greatly reduced. The average level of lead found in the blood of humans has declined 78 percent from 1976-80 to 1988-91.

Reductions in chlorinated compounds, such as DDT, have been achieved. For example, the levels of PCBs found in Lake Michigan trout has declined from a peak of 23 micrograms per gram net weight in 1974 to less than three in 1990.

The system of marketable allowances for emissions of sulfur dioxide from electric power plants contained in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act saved utilities and their rate payers an estimated $240 million in 1995 without sacrificing environmental goals. It is expected to save more than a billion dollars a year in the long run.

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The pollution control system is deeply fragmented, involving hundreds of detailed and rigid environmental laws that are largely unrelated to each other, and lacking in any unified vision of environmental problems or the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) mission.

The complex statutory detail is driven primarily by a basic Congressional mistrust of EPA, the primary agency charged with implementing environmental laws.

The wrong problems are being targeted by the nation's environmental protection efforts. For example, EPA is focusing almost exclusively on outdoor air pollution when a large part of the health risk comes from indoor air pollution; indoor radon tops the health concerns of EPA regional officials, but EPA's radon program is 0.07 percent of the agency's budget. The priorities are set primarily by Congress, and EPA has limited flexibility to adjust legislatively-established priorities.

The system is focused largely on how to control pollution rather than on whether pollution is actually being controlled.

The cost of some regulations exceeds their benefits, costs are not considered explicitly when establishing goals, and there is minimum flexibility for achieving the goals.

All questions of comparative risk are plagued by the inadequacy of information about the nature and severity of environmental problems. For almost every type of pollution, monitoring data are woefully poor and inadequate to determine whether conditions are improving over time and whether EPA's environmental programs are effective.

For air quality, the levels of the two major pollutants that contribute to urban smog -- nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone -- have not shown much improvement.

Nonpoint sources -- the runoff from farms and city streets and the deposition of pollutants from the air into water bodies -- are now the leading source of water pollution in most areas. Neither Congress nor EPA has done much to address nonpoint sources, in part because of a reluctance to take on the powerful farm lobby. The $95 million per year EPA has given since 1990 to states to deal with nonpoint sources is less than five percent of the total funds it gives for water quality.

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Results-oriented. The current system is focused largely on how to control pollution rather than on whether pollution is actually being controlled. Technology-based standards have received the most criticism on this score. The system of the future needs constantly to ask whether human health and the natural environment are being adequately protected. Regulators need to set the standards, ensure that adequate data are available to know if the standards are being met, and take compliance measures if the standards are not being met. The means used to achieve the goals are secondary and should largely be left in the hands of the regulated parties.

Integrated. The fragmentation of the current system is a major factor in its lack of rational priorities, its inefficiency, and its difficulty in identifying and dealing with new problems. Within the next decade, most developed nations will have abandoned the medium-oriented system in favor of an integrated approach. The United States should not be saddled with an antiquated and cumbersome approach. An integrated approach, whether based on geographical area, economic sector, function (enforcement, research, standards setting, and so forth), or some combination of these, is a prerequisite to most other basic reforms of the pollution control system.

Interagency or intersectoral integration is a different but equally important challenge. Future environmental quality will be determined by the nation's energy, agricultural, and transportation policies. Better ways to link environmental concerns and these other policy areas need to be instituted.

Efficient. The inefficiency of the current system should no longer be tolerated. Costs should be considered explicitly when establishing goals, and maximum flexibility should be allowed in achieving the goals. The use of market mechanisms should be a priority.

Participatory. Continuing efforts and experiments are required to encourage citizens to have some trust in their government and to participate in the decisionmaking process. However, public participation should not be used as an excuse for government to abandon its role as protector of the public interest.

Information-rich. The current system lacks all kinds of necessary information--scientific and economic information, information about actual environmental conditions (monitoring data), and information about whether programs are working (program evaluation). Recent events and trends--reduced spending for research and monitoring, the dismantling of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment--have made the situation worse. A new system has to recognize the need for information and provide the resources, incentives, and institutions to provide it.


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