LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : James Strock : Monitoring the Environment as Head of California's EPA

Molly Selvin is an editorial writer for The Times

James M. Strock's ascent of 19,340-foot high Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania may well have been easy compared with his mission as California's first-ever secretary for environmental protection. Since he took office in 1991, Strock has been trying to map out the environmental terrain for his new agency, while battling the state's gusty economic elements. As a member of Gov. Pete Wilson's Cabinet, Strock heads the California Environmental Protec tion Agency (Cal/EPA), responsible for regulating air and water quality, toxics, pesticides and solid waste.

Strock sees his major challenge as holding fast to California's historic commitment to tough environmental laws through a recession that is shaking the state's economic foundation to its core. He walks a centrist line between businesses pleading for relief from some of the strongest environmental standards in the country, on the one hand, and environmentalists, on the other, who correctly point to a long list of unsolved ecological problems. Measured and serious, Strock is putting his energy into initiatives to streamline the state's onerous permitting process without diluting the substance of those regulations.

A Harvard-educated native of Texas, Strock, 37, is new to California but not to the tumult of environmental politics. Appointed by President George Bush, Strock served for two years as the EPA's chief law-enforcement officer; before that, he practiced environmental law in Denver and worked on Capitol Hill.

During his Washington days, Strock became a charter member of the national Theodore Roosevelt Society, devoted to study of the former President, and he is a walking encyclopedia of Rooseveltiana. Why is Roosevelt so compelling? To Strock, he embodied a view of government as an enabler, freeing business and capital, while at the same time preserving America's natural resources in what later became the national parks system. Not a bad role model.

Question: What are the most pressing environmental issues that now face President Clinton?

Answer: There are several. . . . His commitment . . . to better reconcile environmental protection and economic growth is important. There is a great opportunity right now--and this is reflected in Gov. Wilson's technology partnership in California--for American technologies for environmental protection to become economic benefits. That's dependent upon setting environmental standards, or goals, that are based on science and can be achieved . . . .

There's a real need for the President . . . to prioritize the various types of environmental regulation and to do so in a way that provides people with the ability to make decisions. Right now, environmental regulation tends to follow disasters, and that once there is a disaster and a new law is passed, the difficulty is: They may not work well together, or they may be setting implicit priorities that aren't what people would choose.

Question: What should those priorities be?

Answer: In California . . . we're beginning a comparative-risk effort that brings in people . . . from science and other disciplines, from various communities, with the goal of, first, finding out what our best understanding is of the scientific risks presented by various activities in the environmental area, and then . . . setting priorities . . . . That has to be an open process.

For example, scientists will often tell you that the risks presented by toxic-waste sites, in aggregate, are far less than some more common exposures, such as indoor air. However, one's view of that depends on whether one lives by a waste site. So we need the information--we need the dialogue to get moving . . . .

Right now, the U.S., as a whole, is spending more than 2% of its gross domestic product on environmental protection. A number of estimates are that, by the year 2000, this number could approach 3%. When you talk about numbers of that magnitude, under some scenarios environmental-protection investment could approach that of defense or education. People, in general, will correctly seek that their money be spent as well as possible. It's important for people who are concerned about the environment to lead that discussion . . . .

The other thing that I think is a big challenge, on the environmental side, is to do everything possible to make the federal EPA work better.

Q: How do you mean?

A: The EPA nationally works largely as an enforcement agency, as opposed to an enabling organization. And one thing that we're trying to do in California . . . is to try to be an enabler, as well as an enforcer. Now what does that mean? Well, the governor is very focused on having Cal/EPA work hard to assist in the development of new environmental technologies as we set standards and make regulations. . . . Unless that's done, there'll be a tremendous opportunity lost.

Q: How does California compare with the rest of the nation on environmental management? Are we ahead? Are we behind?

A: California tends to be ahead of other states on environmental management. At the same time, it's important to recognize that California needs to be ahead--because the challenges here are so great. The states with the strongest environmental programs, in general, are those states that need to have strong environmental programs. California is certainly at the top. New Jersey is strong. Minnesota. There are others.

In terms of specific areas, it's well recognized that California's work in air quality is a key area of leadership. Second, our protection of the coastal areas is strong by any standard . . . . And California's also been a strong advocate to make sure the federal laws work right in areas like toxics cleanup and making sure that the federal military bases now slated for closure here are cleaned up by the federal government.

Q: Air quality and management of coastal areas are also two lightning rods for a lot of debate. When California's in the midst of a deep recession, how do you improve environmental quality without eliminating jobs at the same time?

A. Gov. Wilson has made a key distinction between the state's environmental standard-setting process--the setting of goals--and the state's permitting process, the legal procedures by which those goals are achieved . . . . Right now in California, there is an industry of close to $20 billion in annual revenues that is fostered by these standards . . . from air to hazardous waste, and employing nearly 180,000 people. Second is the question of permitting. Because while many other states and nations are adopting California's environmental standards--which gives us new markets, among other things--no other jurisdictions, to my knowledge, are seeking to replicate California's permitting process.

The permitting process is one that I'd be hard-pressed to believe anybody could invent . . . . It's all-too often convoluted and vexing and could threaten public support for the environmental programs themselves. So what Gov. Wilson is doing is protecting those standards, while seeking to simplify the permitting process.

Q: What do you think is the biggest environmental problem here in Los Angeles? And what are you trying to do about it?

A: Clearly, the air issues affect people in a very immediate way. Both the air pollution itself and the measures being taken to better clean the air. We've made a strong effort at Cal/EPA to be of assistance to the South Coast Air (Quality) District as it attempts to meet very ambitious goals for the next 20 years . . . . There are significant challenges in terms of making sure that the measurements of currents, levels of pollution, are accurate; making certain that the permits that result are distributed fairly among different economic groups and interests, and making sure that any final program is enforceable legally . . . .

This is a matter of global significance. It's taking on one of the most polluted areas for air in the United States with an extremely broad economic base, in tough economic times. So, literally, the whole world is watching to see if this can be made to work and what it means.

Q: The U.S. EPA is threatening to limit federal highway funds if California does not replace its system of decentralized smog - check stations with a network of more centralized testing facilities. What's going to be the outcome?

A: Frankly, to me, it's inexplicable at a time when leaders from the President to Gov. Wilson are talking about "reinventing government" that aides to the President are talking about inventing a state-run system. We can develop a system that is both environmentally and economically sound without going to the centralized approach. There is strong bipartisan support in the state for continuing to push on this, and we will do so . . . .

Q: Tell me about the environmental - technology partnership. What is Cal / EPA's specific role and what are the milestones that you look toward in this project?

A: . . . Where California's permitting process works properly and where our standards are based upon sound science, we can create a major environmental industry in this state that has global implications. The environmental-technology market could be $300 billion worldwide by the end of this decade, created by government and sustained by government. The partnership is a group of environmental businesses, environmental advocates and government coming together to find ways to continue to increase that effort to benefit California.

Our standards can foster strong environmental technologies that can be of environmental benefit to the state. And to assist in that area, the governor directed us to help put together the various state agencies that work in related areas--whether it's in energy or environment or others--to see how their work can be better brought together, to be of assistance to private business in this area . . . .

Q: Is this a facilitative role for Cal / EPA or do you anticipate some investment of state dollars in all of this?

A: Various state agencies now put money into technologies directly, such as the alternative-technology division and the Department of Toxics and Cal/EPA. One goal here is to bring those together and . . . make certain those monies are being spent in the most effective way. Our biggest role here is not to dictate to people what to do. We're here to listen and to be of assistance--whether it's making certain that our permitting process works right, or whether it's to encourage innovation . . . .

We now have an action plan for legislative and administrative action that is undergoing review within the agency and soon with outside people from government, industry and environmental groups. We had a major piece of legislation passed and signed by the governor that will allow for certification of technology for cleanup or prevention of toxics use in the state. That means, in many situations, technology will be permitted for generic use up front and eliminate the need for getting separate permits.

Q: This kind of technology, if it were developed more fully in California, could it be an economic base of sorts for the state in terms of an industrial base, for example? It's exportable technology, in other words.

A: Oh, yes, it's clearly exportable technology and particularly, to take an example, where a number of California air regulations are being adopted by other jurisdictions wholesale. Particularly in New England right now. Potentially those are automatic markets, markets made by the stroke of a pen for California products.

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