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01/07/94

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Reilly questions massive outlays for federal facility cleanup

STANFORD -- William K. Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, today [Wednesday, Jan. 12] called federal budget outlays for cleanup of contaminated federal facilities "out of control and in need of a thorough review to base cleanup priorities on actual threats to people's health and the environment."

Reilly, the Payne visiting professor at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies, made his recommendations in the second of a series of five public lectures he is scheduled to make at Kresge Auditorium during a 10-month stay at Stanford. He is the University's first Arthur and Frank Payne Lecturer on the Global Community and Its Challenges.

The administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1989 to 1993 said that "cleanup efforts at some facilities - particularly Energy Department facilities - are a "Trojan Horse in the federal treasury, eating at the public's confidence in government's ability to keep its own house in order."

He suggested much of the federal facilities cleanup budget could be redeployed toward "environmental problems that affect millions of people - like improving air quality and protecting coastal waters, the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and other highly productive but imperiled natural systems on which we depend."

Reilly suggested Americans ask themselves what they have got in the existing federal facilities cleanup programs:

  • "When estimates of future program costs reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars?
  • "When cleanup commitments, milestones and deadlines are repeatedly missed?
  • "When technologies are as yet undiscovered to deal with combined radioactive and conventional hazardous waste - perhaps the most serious risks presented by federal facilities?
  • "When risks attributable to contaminated underground water at some of these sites are negligible, and no reliable assessments of risks to health and the environment have been conducted?"

Reilly said, "What you've got is a rationale for a top-to-bottom review with an eye toward developing new priorities, and redeploying scarce budget outlays toward environmental problems that affect millions of people."

A review should be based on "a systematic effort to assess and compare risks posed in the environment," Reilly said. He called risk assessment "a vital instrument for diagnosing serious ailments and for separating the environmental heart attacks and broken bones from the cuts and surface abrasions of everyday life."

"There are, to be sure, federal facilities where tanks and containment areas need to be strengthened and secured, like Fernald, Ohio, and in parts of Hanford, Wash.," Reilly said. "But spending $1 billion per year as we are currently doing in Hanford is insupportable."

Alarms, scares prompt policy

Environmental policy in America, he said, "has grown up in response to episodic alarms and scares - Times Beach, Valley of the Drums, Love Canal, Exxon Valdez. And laws for air, water and land are separate and distinct, with their own legislative histories, regulatory standards, cleanup goals, and congressional committee oversight. The result is incoherence and inefficiency.

"The absence of an integrated environmental policy prevents us from asking the right question," he said. "What is the best deployment of resources to improve the environment overall? Instead we bog down, concentrating on this effluent or that emission, seriatim."

A joint EPA-Amoco Co. project at Amoco's Yorktown, Va., refinery "illustrates the price we pay for this approach," Reilly said.

The project report concluded, he said, "that new approaches could produce about 90 percent of the mandatory emissions reductions for 20 to 25 percent of today's costs."

"There is an urgent need for a great sorting out of U.S. environmental policy," Reilly said. "Federal capacity, particularly EPA's capacity, is being downsized even while responsibilities continue to increase. EPA's operating budget, which grew more than 50 percent during the Bush Administration, has dropped nearly 3 percent during the first year of the Clinton Administration. The agency already is burdened by a surfeit of unfunded obligations, and has been off-loading its fiscal burdens onto states, counties, municipalities and industry."

EPA projected the current burden on the U.S. economy that environmental protection imposes at 2 percent of gross national product, he said. "At that level, it is already among the highest in the industrialized world. Moreover, it's heading higher, closing on 3 percent in six years, largely as a consequence of outlays for hazardous waste and federal facility cleanups."

Scientists, he said "repeatedly rank these problems among the lower-priority environmental threats the nation faces; therefore, the place to start reforms is with Superfund and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act" that govern hazardous waste clean-ups.

"Fortunately, both those laws are currently pending reauthorization by Congress," Reilly said. "The need and the opportunity nicely converge. Congress should do more than tinker."

Congress should ask such questions as, "How many people does this problem affect, how many lives are threatened or lost as a result of it, what is the impact on reclaimable or usable ground water of cleanup efforts, and what realistic prospects for reuse does a site really present?"

Congress should also "prescribe clear cleanup standards," he said, "finally resolving the dilemma it heretofore has saddled on EPA of determining how clean is clean enough."

Reilly also called for reorienting environmental policies "toward larger geographic areas and entire watersheds or ecosystems as a means of illuminating major environmental threats and needs, of forcing a more integrated set of priorities, and of forging partnerships among all the affected interests that can rally around resources they value."

He stressed that risk assessment is by no means a perfect and exclusively sufficient means of setting priorities, and cautioned against "specious quantification and body counts."

"Values, moral judgment, equity, sometimes simple popular prejudice about certain problems people worry a lot about - these are the critical determinants of policy in a democracy," Reilly said.

"To tell a parent his or her child is 100 to 2,000 times more likely to die as a result of a high school football injury than from exposure to asbestos in the classroom may not deter the parent from demanding that the asbestos be removed. But it will improve the parent's environmental literacy and ultimately foster more informed choices, including spending choices, by the public."

What would change?

If comparative risk assessment were to govern U.S. environmental policy, Reilly said, several policies would change:

  • Greater attention and funding would be directed to removal of nutrients in Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, San Francisco Bay and other confined water bodies used and enjoyed by millions of people.
  • Priority attention would be directed to providing safe drinking water and sewage treatment along the U.S.-Mexican border where risks and consequent illness from pollution in unsewered "colonias" are among the highest in this country.
  • The control of runoff of chemicals and nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico would receive urgent attention, because it results in closure of 40 percent of the gulf's shellfish beds at any one time.
  • San Diego would not be required to spend hundreds of millions of dollars or more on full secondary treatment of waste waters prior to their dispersion in the deep ocean with "negligible consequences," but would accelerate funding and construction of a treatment facility to handle neighboring Tijuana's waste water. Tijuana's untreated sewage frequently causes the closure of San Diego's beaches, he said.
  • Building owners across the United States, and particularly their mortgage lenders, would discontinue the routine practice of disturbing and removing asbestos from buildings in favor of the "far more economical and less risky practice of managing it in place."
  • Internationally, major aid and lending institutions would increase the priority to provide safe drinking water in developing countries. Reilly said that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 40,000 children die each day as a result of drinking contaminated water.
  • Conservation of forests, for their biological diversity and their role in ameliorating world climate change, would become a major priority of the international community before the forests are all gone.

"We are at an important juncture in our history," Reilly said, "when new avenues are open not just to protect the environment, but even to restore it, in the United States as in many other countries."

For example, he said, "It now looks like a great river in Florida, the Kissimmee, which the Corps of Engineers channeled and straightened in the 1960s, may be returned to its natural course by the same Corps of Engineers. This is emblematic of an opportunity not just to defend but to go on the offensive, to create and to restore. Fish can now be returned to rivers from which they have long been absent, and derelict lands can be replanted and forested. Ultimately, the beckoning goal is of nature restored."

-kpo-

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