- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2000

"After 30 years, Earth Day has evolved from a counter-culture 'happening' to a self-congratulatory Establishment love-fest: a hodge-podge of Green boosterism, global apocalysm, genuine concern for life and well-being, and special interest propaganda," to quote Carl Close of the Independent Institute.
Today's 30th anniversary hoopla, including the problematic ABC interview of President Clinton by Leonardo DiCaprio, reminds us that 1970 was a banner year for the environment. The National Environmental Policy Act went into effect, with its requirement for environmental-impact statements and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970. Joining the EPA at that time, I vividly recall the concern about cleaning up the nation's air and water. (Global warming wasn't even on the radar screen; the national anxiety then was about a coming ice age.) Now to sum up what was achieved in the last three decades.
In a nutshell: The environment improved, but at great cost; the path taken toward cleaner air and water was far from optimal. Yet progress has been substantial, depending somewhat on whose figures and which pollutant you use. And all this has been achieved despite the growth of cities and urban sprawl, a rapid increase in the number of cars and trucks, and the construction of fossil-fueled electric power plants to meet the demands of industry, home appliances, and air-conditioning.
In 1970, Lake Erie was said to be "dying;" lakes were becoming eutrophic and beginning to stink; fish had disappeared from many streams and bathing was unsafe; some rivers even caught fire; smog in Los Angeles was a common occurrence.
All of this has changed. Complaints that Houston was smoggier than Los Angeles last year just hide the true story: Both cities have improved tremendously. In fact, so clean have urban areas become, that the EPA is desperate to tighten the standards so that cities will no longer be in compliance.
It's really the only way the regulators can stay in their jobs. Moving the goal posts and inventing new environmental threats have now become the main mission of EPA a new danger every year, from acid rain and Alar to dioxin and endocrine disrupters. Let's not forget the many billions already wasted on Superfund, asbestos removal and radon protection, and now, the looming global warming "threat," the "mother of all environmental scares."
But costs go up exponentially as one tries to remove the last bit of pollution. A completely clean environment would consume an unacceptable fraction of household income and lead to a lower standard of living, poorer housing and medical care.
The EPA has never really addressed the fundamental question of "How clean is clean?" Furthermore, it's only now, after 30 years of command-control measures, that the concept of a pollution "market," with emission trading, is taking hold. Previously, environmental zealots had always fought against the idea that one could "buy the right to pollute."
There are really two ways to tackle the basic question of how far to go in environmental cleanup: One relies on economics, the other on science. When the cost becomes too high, people will no longer support tighter standards with ever-increasing expenditures to remove pollutants.
The problem, though, is that the costs are often hidden so that an informed choice is not available. For example, the Department of Energy now spends $6 billion a year on cleaning up sites that are polluted by radioactivity; that's about $60 per household. But are these efforts really worthwhile, couldn't these areas just be blocked off, and indeed, do people require access to former weapons sites? And if they don't go near these sites, they might as well be in Siberia; yet no one seriously suggests that we clean up old Soviet Union sites.
Cost is the main reason why so much of the developing world is still heavily polluted. When it's a choice between food or clean air, food will win. As Indur Goklany points out in his new book "Clearing the Air," economic growth is the prime driver for environmental quality. Once a certain standard of living has been achieved, people demand a cleaner environment and are willing to pay for it. In fact, as shown by the data he assembled, pollution control by states and local communities was well underway long before federal legislation and before EPA.
The science approach to "how clean is clean" looks at the health benefits of a cleaner environment to see what improvements are worthwhile. But it also looks at the natural pollution levels that are outside of human control.
For example, with the existing background of cosmic rays and other natural radioactivity, there is little point in demanding that exposure to man-made radiation be reduced to zero. To be consistent, why not stop air travel or living in Denver, where cosmic rays are stronger? A similar argument holds for air and water pollution.
The EPA controls only outdoor air quality, but people spend most of their time indoors, in kitchens or near smoky wood fires, where pollution can be high. And before letting EPA control indoor air quality, what about the adverse health effects of poor diets or of lack of exercise?
The EPA has been notorious in its disregard of both economics and science in its regulatory decisions. It has used the excuse that Congress forbade it to consider economic cost, but this is only partly true and should, of course, be remedied. The low status of science at EPA has been documented by Mark Powell in a recent book "Science at EPA."
The EPA's utter disregard for science has also been exposed repeatedly by the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit, which threw out EPA's latest case just last month. A Wall Street Journal lead editorial headlined "Weird Science" told the story: "The EPA set out to put limits on a certain chemical [chloroform] in ground water, asked a scientific panel to establish a safe limit, took the panel's recommendation and threw it away, then set the limit to zero. The three-judge panel laughed this out of court… . EPA argued that a zero-tolerance level was merely a 'prudential step.' The court said that this 'novel, even politically charged outcome' didn't relieve EPA of its duty to obey the law."
The agency then tried to defend itself with the "why-take-chances" argument. The court replied: "EPA cannot reject the 'best available' evidence simply because of the possibility of contradiction in the future by evidence unavailable at the time of action a possibility that will always be present."
This court ruling may have wider-ranging consequences since it really tackles the "precautionary principle" head on. After 30 years, we may finally be entering an era in which environmental decisions will be made on a rational basis.S. Fred Singer is president of the Fairfax-based Science and Environmental Policy Project.

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