Why the EPA Is Like It Is

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By William Sanjour.

Some of you may remember Bill Sanjour. Bill was a life-long employee of EPA in the Office of Solid Waste. He was an active critic of the agency, and he wrote several articles about the agency where he spent most of his working life. This is an excerpt from one of these articles. Contact info@chej.org for a copy of the complete article.

I am frequently asked why the United States Environmental Protection Agency does not seem to be particularly interested in protecting the environment. EPA is frequently cited as not only failing to protect the environment but even for working at cross purposes to environmental protection. I’ve concluded that to understand why EPA is the way that it is, you must start at the top, at the White House.

Any President of the United States and his immediate staff have an agenda of about a half dozen issues that they are most concerned with. These are usually national security, foreign affairs, the economy, the budget, and maybe one or two other issues. These I’ll call the Class A priorities. Other presidential responsibilities such as housing, education, welfare, transportation, the environment, veteran’s affairs, etc. I’ll call Class B priorities.

Equally important, but less well-known is the so-called “hidden agenda.” This includes such considerations as getting re-elected, getting supporters re-elected, and “where do we go when our term in office is over?” The hidden agenda is not peculiar to the White House as similar considerations are shared by every government official from the Speaker of the House to the House janitor. We are, after all, talking about people who, although they may be lofty government dignitaries, nevertheless have mortgages to pay, children to send to college, and orthodontist bills. When one brings the hidden agenda out of hiding, the actions of the government become the actions of people and they become clearer.

For the Class A priorities, the President appoints people he knows, and trusts and he demands performance. He will expect the military to be able to deploy forces anywhere in the world when an emergency arises. If they are not ready when he needs them, he will “bang heads and kick asses.” But can you picture any President of the United States bringing the Secretary of Education into his office and slamming his fist on the table because of low SAT scores in Sheboygan? Or bringing the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency into the oval office to chew him out for the pollution in the Cuyahoga River? I can’t. And that, to my mind, is the difference. The President expects performance in Class A. He expects something else in Class B.

That something else is peace and quiet. The President will usually appoint people to head Class B agencies who are amenable to the special interests concerned with that agency, rather than his own cronies, but the message that goes out from the White House to the managers in Class B is, “do anything you want so long as it doesn’t impinge on the President’s Class A priorities.” But EPA can do almost nothing which doesn’t adversely affect business, especially big and influential business, and that disturbs the President’s peace and quiet. Furthermore, uncovering the hidden agenda reveals that the President needs big business to finance election campaigns and his staff is looking ahead to parlaying their White House experience to seven figure jobs in private industry.

The Administrator of EPA is usually someone who is agreeable to the mainline environmentalists but one who is also a “team player.” He can make all the speeches he wants about the environmental ethic, but he must not do anything to make waves. This message permeates the entire agency. The message isn’t transmitted through written or even oral instructions. It’s more a case of survival of the “fittest.” People who like to get things done, people who need to see concrete results for their efforts, don’t last long at EPA. When it comes to drafting and implementing rules for environmental protection, getting results means making enemies of powerful and influential people. No, they don’t usually get fired, but they don’t get advanced either, and their responsibilities are transferred to other people, and they usually leave the agency in disgust. The kind of people who get ahead are those clever wimps who can be terribly busy while they procrastinate, obfuscate, and come up with superficially plausible reasons for not accomplishing anything.

The bottom line is that if you want EPA to pay attention to you, you have to affect the careers of EPA employees. If you organize and have a large block of supporters, then you can influence local, state, and federal elections. You can also use your influence on local banks, merchants, or anyone else who might be tempted to profit from a hazardous waste facility in your backyard. By pressuring these people, you in turn affect the pocketbooks and careers of EPA employees, and thus their actions. If you win locally, EPA will follow.

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