The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an often embattled and criticized federal agency – and very much rightly so. Since its inception in late 1970, the EPA has struggled to deliver on its mandate to be good stewards for America’s environment. However, it is my view derived from my personal experience, that the agency’s failings have more to do with its structure and its imposed limitations, than with its people.
One example that is still fresh in everyone’s mind is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The town experienced such a cataclysmic and systematic failure of all the safety checkpoints designed to maintain a safe drinking water system; but the biggest failure of all came from the very top. The EPA failed to “establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools,” as their own self-assessment report
concluded. This stemmed from the slow and bureaucratic structure of their upper management, who in many instances were political appointees with little to no experience in the field.
Perhaps even more damaging are the handcuffs the EPA works with – financial handcuffs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Superfund program. Once funded by a fairly well-designed and reasonable dedicated tax on polluters, the program now runs on fumes. Since 1995, taxpayer money funds the cleanups, and even this has been cut by almost 50% over the last two decades. The result for the agency is almost nonexistent enforcement power and cleanup activities that get delayed for years. I could probably go on and on citing examples of the way the EPA has proven to be next to useless. But I don’t despise the agency; at least not anymore. I worked there for a little over 3 years as a contractor and, initially, I was very cautious and apprehensive. Having come from an environmental nonprofit background, I saw them as, maybe not the enemy, but certainly as a facilitator for those against me. In many ways that remains true, but the people I met there changed my view of the agency quite drastically.
In my years working as a contractor for the EPA, I saw firsthand how its people work passionately and are fully committed to the agency’s mission. I have seen how toxicologist colleagues meticulously examined chemicals under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and approached their review from a precautionary principle standpoint. I saw how occupational safety experts strictly enforced updated chemical safety measures at EPA labs. I saw how sustainability professionals implemented new environmental management systems at nearly all EPA facilities to further reduce the carbon footprint of the agency. All of these personal victories of the dedicated EPA staff I have had the privilege of knowing and working with over the past seem small compared to the agency’s debacles. But they served to paint a different picture in my head. In an ideal world, where funding is not always cut short and management is effective and knowledgeable, the EPA could do some good work. Perhaps more, much more, is needed for it to address all of the environmental challenges we face today. But I am willing to bet that if the drive and dedication of most of the EPA staff were unshackled, the EPA would have a decent chance at doing its job.