President-elect Barack Obama seems close to naming Lisa Jackson, now head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson, or whoever ends up getting the appointment, will surely get a raft of advice from friends and closet enemies alike. Most of it will have to do with regulations she should cancel, promulgate, or change profoundly. But I have some turf-guarding advice.
Of all the body blows that have fallen on EPA in the last 16 years, during both the Clinton and Bush II Administrations, none is at once so subtle and serious as the fact that it is no longer first among equals within the government with respect to the environmental problems that are in its jurisdiction. Instead, these bipartisan and shortsighted chief executives put the departments that EPA is supposed to regulate on an equal footing with that Agency on environmental matters. The result was that every time EPA got the Department of Defense’s nose out of joint – even a little bit – by proposing that the military clean up a pollution legacy that dwarfs the mess created by private industry, EPA was hauled before a raft of White House staffers and made to back down.
Under President Clinton, this sad situation undercut scientific research on what perchlorate, a dangerous component of rocket fuel, does to infants and babies in utero. Clinton allowed the Department of the Army to send a lawyer to co-chair with an EPA scientist the interagency taskforce that supervised the federal research program on this toxic chemical. The Army, working closely with munitions manufacturers, was so effective at interfering with the evolving science that it managed to set up a system that directed academic scientists to conduct a study and then hired a different group of academic scientists to attack it. For a full description of these events, see my book, Mother Earth and Uncle Sam: How Pollution and Hollow Government Hurts Our Kids.
Perchlorate is present in the water supply of 20 million Americans, and is especially dangerous because 14.9 percent of women of childbearing age and 6.7 percent of pregnant women have low urine iodide concentrations. That condition is what makes perchlorate poisoning so very serious. The wrong dose of perchlorate at the wrong moment can throw a developing child’s delicate thyroid system into upheaval, interfering with normal neurological development and causing microcephaly (small head), paraplegia, quadriplegia, and other movement disorders in extreme cases. To read more about perchlorate and its effects, read this.
Later in the perchlorate debate, the Bush II Administration decided it could not afford to do anything about the chemical, once again bending to Army threats that protecting people from this pollution could interfere with the “readiness” of the nation to deal with foreign threats. See here and here.
Imagine for just a moment the hue and cry if the toxicologists over at EPA were given a comparable role in deciding matters clearly under the Pentagon’s dominion – when and how to deploy American troops, for example?
In fact, this process has weakened EPA so much that a few weeks ago, it hung its head and slunk off into the bushes when military officers at Fort Mead in Maryland refused to comply with a cleanup order that EPA had issued under the nation’s toxic waste cleanup law. That law, known commonly as Superfund, says that the military must comply in the same way as any other entity. Those that don’t get dragged to court by EPA. But the White House has refused to allow EPA to take other federal agencies into court. Usually, the agencies cooperate anyway. Not this time. This arrogance was too much even for the Bush Justice Department, which issued a memo a few days ago telling the Pentagon and the scofflaws at Fort Mead to get off their high horse.
We all have high hopes for the Obama Administration. But it is on turf battles like this that the new president and his new EPA administrator may well make their reputations. Just the other day, EPA’s arch nemesis under George W. Bush, Dr. John Graham, former head of the Office of Management Budget unit that smothered many EPA initiatives in their cradle, was giving a pep talk to an inside-the-Beltway crowd at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. He told everyone not to worry too much because Larry Summers will make sure that economically devastating climate change legislation never passes. As it turns out, who has the final say actually matters.
For more on perchlorate and its dangers, read articles from the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Science and Technology, Wired Science, and New Scientist.