BEYOND THE BURFORD CASE AND INTO AN ACID HAZE
Jay D. Hair, executive vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation, last week likened the resignation of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne Burford (below) to "getting rid of a water boy on a bad football team." Intemperate though that may have sounded, Congressmen of both parties and a great many newspaper editorial writers were making much the same point. The coziness with polluters that led to Burford's downfall, they said, was no anomaly but reflected the Administration's approach to environmental issues generally.
That this view of the Administration is accurate is borne out by its handling of another issue that, because it involves a broader spectrum of the government than the toxic-waste program that brought Burford to grief, provides a case study of the Reagan team's overall environmental orientation. This issue is acid rain, which has devastated aquatic life, threatens forests and may pose a health hazard to humans in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. There's a wealth of persuasive evidence that the acid rain plaguing this region is caused mainly by windborne emissions from coal-fired plants in the Midwest and that only swift action can avert irreversible damage.
The Reagan Administration strenuously resists these conclusions. Officially, its position is that not enough is known about acid rain to justify government action, a view also subscribed to by utilities and other industries. But this contention is belied by the fact that the Administration is acting—to undermine the few emission controls that do exist. The EPA has granted delays and exceptions in the enforcement of air-quality standards governing the emission of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, two of the major components of acid rain, and the President has personally pushed for a bill amending the Clean Air Act of 1970 that would further erode those standards.
The Administration has also undercut and played keepaway with the very research into acid rain it says is still needed. A case in point is a joint Canadian-U.S. project launched in 1980 to study and deal with the situation. That mission has been sabotaged by the repeated failure of U.S. scientists to show up for meetings and Washington's dizzying reshuffling of scientists whenever they appear to be on the verge of reaching politically unpalatable conclusions. One of these scientists, Gary Glass, an aquatics biologist, was abruptly replaced as head of an aquatics-impact assessment work group not by another aquatics specialist but by a crops expert. A similar fate befell Orie Loucks, a Butler University expert in ecosystems analysis, who suggests that the removal of himself and others from work groups was the result of "political intervention" meant to avoid definitive answers. The disruptive tactics have frustrated Canadian officials, one of whom, Raymond M. Robinson, executive chairman of Canada's Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office, complains that Washington has followed an "extremely dangerous" course of seeking "to influence scientific judgments to produce politically or administratively convenient conclusions."
Politics also appears to have played a part in the Administration's reaction to a 1981 report by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that the acid-rain menace merited reductions in acidic depositions of up to 50%. James McAvoy, at the time a top Reagan adviser on acid rain, called the report biased, and the White House declined to give the academy, which relies on the federal government for much of its funding, further money for acid-rain research. It also vetoed participation by the academy in what had been expected to be a joint U.S.-Canadian peer review of the findings of the bilateral work groups. The White House decided instead to set up its own peer-review panel.
Given the damage that acid rain is documented to have caused, the thoughts on the subject expressed by some top Administration officials have been insultingly cavalier. In testimony last year before a House subcommittee, then-Deputy EPA Administrator John Hernandez refused to concede that acid rain had gotten progressively worse since the 1950s or that the phenomenon had contributed to the loss of aquatic life in Northeastern lakes. Hernandez said he felt that in some instances the situation actually may have become "less worse." This from the man who upon Burford's resignation became the EPA's acting administrator. Interior Secretary James Watt has also been heard from on the subject. Asked about acid rain at a dinner in New York in late 1981, Watt, according to a journalist who was there, told of having discussed the subject with a Canadian official, and saying, "When you do something about Canadian blizzards, then this country will do something about acid rain."
Another Administration figure involved in the acid-rain controversy is David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget. In contrast with the Reagan position that not enough is known about acid rain, Stockman appeared to concede in a 1980 speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, before Reagan took office, that enough may indeed be known but that action still wasn't called for because of political and economic considerations; Stockman questioned whether it "makes sense to spend billions of dollars controlling emissions from sources in Ohio" to save aquatic life in New England. But an EPA study to determine if it does make sense had its funding slashed by Stockman's OMB last November just as it was nearing completion. Some funding for the study, in which a computer model was being developed to ascertain the cost-effectiveness of utility pollution-control systems, was restored after protests by both Democratic and Republican Congressmen.
The Administration's across-the-board obfuscation and obstructionism on the acid-rain issue casts in a harsh light a remark President Reagan made at a press conference 48 hours after Burford's resignation. Reminded by a reporter that opinion polls had indicated that the American people viewed his environmental policies as being more favorable to polluters than the public, Reagan replied, "That's all they've heard, but no one has given any evidence that that is true." The President's response made one wonder where he has been lately. When the evidence hasn't been leaking from steel drums, it has been literally falling out of the skies.
BETH HEIDEN'S HAT TRICK