The EPA’s appropriations bill, about 20% trimmer than last year’s, was passed by Congress but vetoed by the president last month. “Benzene in the water, sewage on the beaches and more pollution in the air,” Vice President Al Gore intoned, arguing against the cuts. “Congress seems determined to eviscerate all those laws on the books that are designed to . . . protect the pristine quality of our environment,” chimed in Carol Browner of the Environmental Protection Agency. But the reality is that there are many major EPA programs Americans are better off without.
Consider Superfund. More formally the Hazardous Substances Trust Fund, Superfund was conceived in 1980 as a short-term project--$1.6 billion over five years to clean up some 400 sites (by law at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has mushroomed into one of the nation’s largest public works projects: $30 a billion spent on almost 1,300 sites.
Various studies have attempted to evaluate the effect of these massive and costly cleanups, but no beneficial results have been shown. On the other hand, Superfund projects have caused a great deal of harm. An economics professor at San Jose State University, J. Paul Leigh, has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup and concluded that the risk of fatality to the average worker-- a dump-truck driver involved in a collision or a laborer run over by a bulldozer, for example-- is considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposure to the sites. And cancer risks are theoretical estimates that may occur over many years or decades, while work site fatalities will happen in the time it takes to do the cleanup.
Leigh’s studies suggest that there are three important factors EPA should take into consideration in directing a cleanup:
* Worker fatality risks tend to increase as the desired levels of cleanup increase, since more soil excavation and transportation are required to make the site cleaner. So if EPA requires the removal of 99% of the waste instead of 90%, vastly more work and more time at risk are necessary.
* Baseline risks at contaminated sites are often small because of the small number of people who live near them.
* Regulators must balance the risks to different groups. In the official records of decisions at many Superfund sites, however, the possibility of dangers to cleanup workers is not even mentioned.
EPA scientist Carl Mazza said recently that the agency is aware that Superfund policies often conflict with risk analysis, but “political considerations” don’t permit rational decision-making. I’m sure both taxpayers and cleanup workers will find that comforting.
Leaving aside the fine points of risk analysis, most of the costs of Superfund actually end up going to lawyers. Usually, I would find that outrageous, but it’s certainly preferable to spend money on Mercedes-Benzes for lawyers than for killing bioremediation workers.
Why does EPA keep such a program going? It’s in the self-interest of bureaucrats to amass bigger budgets, larger empires and more responsibilities. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Frank E. Young once quipped, “Dogs bark, cows moo and regulators regulate.”
Programs like Superfund that afford little or no protection to human health or the environment are not uncommon. They have huge costs and divert resources from legitimate public and private sector endeavors. They breed well-deserved cynicism about government’s motives. They benefit primarily one special interest: bureaucrats.
If EPA’s Superfund program were abolished tomorrow, Americans would benefit and the U.S. Treasury would be richer. Congress, take notice. Override the veto.