EPA Should Cooperate with the States

By Christopher Hartwell

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently reported on state environmental programs, concluding that numerous states let ''significant'' polluters escape prosecution. Unfortunately, behind these words lies a political maneuver designed to prevent the states from assuming greater responsibilities. Idaho was the chief victim of this dubious scheme.

In the report, Idaho was demonized for allowing ''repeated and continuous air quality violations.'' But the facts contradict these claims. The Idaho Division of Environmental Quality negotiated an agreement with the EPA in 1993 that explicitly laid out the standards that Idaho would strive for - standards which the EPA embraced at the time.

Over the next five years, the Idaho DEQ produced tangible environmental benefits. With Idaho's industrial expansion, Idaho's waterways showed a dramatic decrease in pollutants. Gov. Phil Batt praised efforts that ''adopted voluntary water quality standards and vigorously pursued mitigation projects ... without the heavy hand of government.''

These achievements apparently don't count, because they didn't adhere to EPA methods. When Idaho DEQ was audited by the EPA's Office of the Inspector General in 1998, inspectors disregarded the regional agreement and used the national standards, standards that both Idaho and EPA knew couldn't be met. Without offering a satisfactory explanation why, the regional EPA callously reneged on its agreement.

Behind this reckless maneuver lies a misguided view of the relationship between enforcement and environmental benefit: EPA assumes that increased enforcement automatically equals increased environmental protection. EPA's audits judge success based not on progress toward environmental cleanliness, as Idaho achieved, but on the collection of fines and the number of enforcement actions.

But as James Wilson showed in his classic ''Bureaucracy,'' this is a fallacy. Just because a policeman does not ticket any speeders during the week does not automatically mean that he's not doing his job.

The EPA report has blatant political overtones. The states have adopted flexibility in their environmental policy-making over the past few years, focusing on compliance assistance rather than punishment. These principles sap power from the EPA and allow the states to utilize their local knowledge to achieve environmental goals.

Despite talk of flexibility, EPA remains enamored with central planning. If environmental progress is truly the goal, EPA should embrace cooperative approaches to problem-solving, rather than paying it lip service in theory and sabotaging it in practice.

Christopher Hartwell is a policy analyst with the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute and author of the RPPI study Alternate Permitting at the State Level.

Idaho Statesman, January 21, 1999



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