Energy & Environment

Calculating Cleanliness

An EPA draft reportprovides a roadmap for compiling data and mapping trends to pinpoint environmental threats.
by | August 2003

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

When Christine Todd Whitman quit after two years as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she hadn't made much of a mark on how pollution-control programs are conducted. But the former New Jersey governor left behind a milestone document that public officials should use to concentrate governments' attention on the fundamental goal of improving environmental quality in a measurable way.

The agency's Draft Report on the Environment 2003 attempts to lay out "what EPA knows--and doesn't know--about the current state of the environment." Public officials need to take a serious look at the report's facts and figures. These suggest what's working--and what's not--as state and local governments go about cleaning the air, purifying the water and guarding landscapes against abuse.

An accounting is long past due. Up to now, federal and state regulators have gauged success by toting up procedural steps: how many inspections they conduct, how many dollars they collect in fines and how many polluters they haul to court. Whitman's report offers an honest, generally comprehensive review of the real-life results that can be documented. Among other findings, EPA's scorekeepers noted that air pollution has declined by 25 percent over the last 30 years, 94 percent of Americans have been drinking healthy water since 2002, and toxic chemical releases have been cut nearly in half over the past 15 years.

The report's most useful accomplishment is in advancing federal and state efforts to construct reliable and meaningful scientific "indicators" that show how clean the air and water are, and whether land is protected from over-development. By continuing to compile data at specific sites and map trends over time, governments can start pinpointing the country's most severe environmental threats. Then, they can use the evidence to draw conclusions about the most effective ways to deal with specific problems.

"If you're in favor of results-based management, you need a baseline, and this report is it," notes R. Steven Brown, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States. EPA's document draws on work that New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and a number of other states developed. The states publish their own scorecards to track environmental conditions, describing consequential measures of success or failure in pollution control. The efforts also have encouraged fruitful soul-searching among regulatory officials who suspect that EPA and state agencies are so immersed in following permit-by-permit procedures that they're overlooking some big-picture pollution threats.

EPA and state agencies have finally begun--albeit belatedly-- integrating data exchange networks to make insightful analysis possible. During Whitman's term as governor, the New Jersey Environmental Protection Department developed a system to link enforcement reports with air and water conditions and display them for specific geographic areas. Illinois has accumulated data and begun publishing watershed maps that depict clearly where water quality has been improving and where it's not. In Massachusetts, federal and state officials teamed up with local watershed groups to monitor water quality at 37 spots along an 80-mile stretch of the Charles River outside Boston. By crunching the numbers from that effort, they detected illegal sewer hookups and other unsuspected problems that were befouling the river.

There's still a lot of work to be done perfecting indicators that are accurate enough to be similarly useful. Whitman labeled the 2003 EPA report a "draft," and her successor must work with Congress and the states to beef up monitoring and information-processing systems to fill in gaps in the data. Career EPA regulators have always distrusted state agencies they oversee, but some now say they'd be comfortable letting states set their own priorities--provided they're backed up with reliable methods to gauge the consequences. Once clear-cut indicators are in place, state pollution-control commissioners--and the governors they work for--must be ready to be held to account for whether or not their states measure up in comparisons with their neighbors.

Last year, the Michigan Environmental Council assembled existing data into a "Greening the Governments" report that assessed how eight Great Lakes states are faring in meeting pollution standards. Governors may well resist being judged against their counterparts, but similar state-by-state comparisons could go a long way toward countering fears that state capitals remain eager to race to the bottom. That is, ready to relax pollution regulation to attract industry.

With government budgets so tight, voters and legislators deserve more convincing answers about pollution trends than EPA and most of the states have been supplying. By following up on the accounting that the Whitman report begins, governments can rebuild public resolve to do whatever's required to restore a demonstrably clean environment.


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