Republicans must stop their senseless EPA bashing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established by a Republican President, the late Richard Milhous Nixon in December, 1970. EPA was founded in order to consolidate in one agency a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection.

Without question, the history of the EPA is one of America’s great success stories. Throughout the four decades since its establishment, the agency has continuously fulfilled its mission of improving the quality of our nation’s air, water, and land.

You would think that my party, the Republican Party, would point to EPA’s establishment and its subsequent environmental triumphs as a proud GOP legacy. Instead, bashing and trashing the EPA has become a major Washington Republican sport.

This anti-EPA Republican thrust has become most evident in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. With the notable exception of Mitt Romney, every candidate for the GOP nomination has either called for the dismantling of the EPA or the relinquishment of its major functions.

The epitome of these attacks is to be found in the statements of Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota). During her campaign in Iowa before that state’s GOP straw poll, she stated, “I guarantee you the E.P.A. will have doors locked and lights turned off, and they will only be about conservation. It will be a new day and a new sheriff in Washington, D.C.” In an earlier debate she said the agency should be renamed the “job-killing organization of America.”

Now I am not a Michele Bachmann detractor. I have written very favorably about her campaign, her successful leadership of the Tea Party caucus, her self-discipline while undergoing venomous liberal media attack, and her first-rate policy insight. I have taken note of her academic success and her vast knowledge of economic theory. I continue to believe that she has the political skills, policy insight, and judgment to be an impressive President of the United States.

I must vehemently disagree, however, with her assessment of the EPA. Her claim regarding the extent of EPA’s destruction of jobs is unsupported by any factual evidence. Abolishing the EPA will not cause a revival of America’s economy, but it will certainly result in a major decline in public health and our quality of life.

Libertarian ideologues often espouse “free market” solutions to environmental issues. I believe in the free market in terms of generating economic growth. Our current economic woes are largely attributable to the abortive efforts of President Obama to generate prosperity through “stimulus” programs, which historically have always failed because they actually distort and hinder the natural growth of the free market.

Yet while one can concur with a low tax and limited regulatory policy in terms of economic growth and job creation, the environment and public health are different issues altogether. Even the most extreme libertarian must agree that we need government to protect the life, liberty, and property of our citizens from wrongful incursions by others. Does it not follow that we need an EPA to protect the health and property of our citizens from pollution caused by industry?

We have already witnessed too many examples of unregulated industrial activity resulting in destruction of the environment and public health. The Love Canal, Donora, dioxin destruction of the Passaic River, and the PCB contamination of the Hudson River are but a few examples of the bitter harvest of nonregulation of industrial pollution.

Rank and file Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the need for EPA to act as both their protector from public health dangers and preserver of the environment. It is not only bad policy for Republicans to call for elimination or downsizing of the EPA; it is bad politics as well.

Those Republicans who call for the abolishment of the EPA are also propounding a false dichotomy. The President I served, George W. Bush, defined the mission of the EPA as “the acceleration of the pace of environmental protection while maintaining our nation’s economic competitiveness.” Indeed, environmental protection and economic prosperity are compatible and do not have to be in conflict. By the way, Bush was a far better President on the environment than his critics contend, but that is a subject for another column by me at another time.

There is another aspect of EPA that is largely unknown among the electorate. The career professionals at EPA, by and large, are among the most capable people you can find in either the public or private sector. I learned this firsthand as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the second term of the administration of President George W. Bush.

During my tenure, Region 2 EPA made remarkable progress on a number of critical issues, including, but not limited to, 1) the remediation of the Passaic River and the Hudson River PCB Superfund site, two of the dirtiest rivers in the nation; 2) the record revised consent judgment against PSEG for its Jersey City coal-fired plant, (the dirtiest in the state at the time of the judgment); 3) the amendment of the New York City Filtration Avoidance Determination to provide for ultraviolet treatment of New York City water; 4) the completion of the post 9-11 cleanup of indoor spaces in Lower Manhattan; 5) the finalization of the consent judgment for the remediation of Lake Onondaga, New York; 6) the billion dollar plus consent judgment against the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, mandating major upgrades in the island’s wastewater system; 7) the first mandated closure of leaking landfills in the history of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; and 8) the restoration of the Ringwood Mines site to the Superfund National Priorities List, the first such restoration in the history of the EPA.

Yet while I was privileged to lead the effort, the credit was due to the most competent professionals I have met in the public and private sector, both in my years of government and as an in-house attorney for major corporations. The scientists, engineers, lawyers, and financial personnel who work at Region 2 EPA are top quality professionals whose public service, by and large, is absolutely exemplary.

I must also say a word about Obama administration EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Lisa served as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection during my tenure as Region 2 EPA Administrator. Despite differences in politics and ideology, we were able to cooperate most effectively for the enhancement of New Jersey’s environment. She is a person of profound decency and outstanding professionalism.

All this does not mean that criticism of Obama administration EPA policies should be off limits to Republicans. Indeed, I have been most critical of the current administration’s climate change policies. It is one thing to criticize Obama EPA policies; however, it is another matter altogether to call for the abolition or downsizing of EPA.

The current contenders for the GOP presidential nomination can effectively criticize the Obama administration for a veritable plethora of failures. Barack Obama has displayed pathetic incompetence on economic and budgetary issues and total incoherence on foreign policy. Republican presidential candidates should stick to these issues, rather than thoughtless calls for the abolition or downsizing of the EPA, an agency whose existence and success should be regarded as a proud legacy for the Republican Party.

Various right-wing Republicans will read this article and call me a RINO (Republican in Name Only). That is all right with me. These same critics would have also called Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt RINOs.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.

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