Common ground helps environmental outlook


PHILADELPHIA -- The man is talking heatedly about all that is wrong with the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is too big, too slow; too many meetings with 50 or 60 people attending. Liberal Democrats have to realize "there is too much bureaucracy, too much bull."

He would reduce EPA's staff and budget, forcing it to focus on its mission; and he would decentralize, spreading bureaucrats around the country in local field offices.

Also, he would give agency people the flexibility to make common sense decisions; and here he recounts an example of things gone amok:

A filling station operator in Butler, Pa., was fined $300 recently by EPA. One of the agency's top officials called the penalty "crazy," but it was mandatory. The infraction? The businessman could only measure the contents of his storage tanks to the quarter-inch, not to the eighth required by EPA regulations.

If you had read me the foregoing criticisms of EPA, out of any context, I'd probably figure them for more of the anti-government screed -- all too common these days -- usually aimed, beneath the rhetoric, at giving away more of Nature's store to polluters.

Neat little anecdotes like the gas station one are stock-in-trade for the crowd in Congress that is pushing -- successfully so far -- to weaken environmental protection across the board. Such tales do their damage before anyone can check them out. I'd want to talk to the EPA bureaucrat in charge to see what actually happened.

But I already was.

All the above remarks come from a conversation in Philadelphia last week with Peter H. Kostmayer. Until he was fired June 1, he was Bill Clinton's EPA administrator for the region that includes most of Chesapeake Bay's six-state watershed.

A liberal Democrat who served seven terms in Congress between 1976 and 1992, Kostmayer, 48, scarcely wishes to weaken environmental enforcement. Indeed, environmentalists say he was fired for being too aggressive on behalf of clean air, water and wetlands at a time when Congress was antagonistic toward even maintaining the status quo.

During his EPA stint, Kostmayer vetoed one of West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd's pet chunks of pork, a 13-mile, billion-dollar road that won't connect with the rest of the interstate system.

The veto, based on environmental studies three years in the making before Kostmayer even took office, was reversed, he says, "in a day" by the White House.

He wrangled with Virginia and Pennsylvania officials to uphold -- unpopular auto emissions testing to meet clean air standards.

In Maryland, he tried unsuccessfully to hold up state permits allowing the bulldozing of wetlands for the controversial Riddle Farm housing and resort project near Ocean City. He had been told early on, he says, "by a very senior person in [EPA], 'Don't bring us any wetlands controversies, unless they are filling the Everglades.' " In the Riddle Farm case, Mr. Kostmayer says, EPA headquarters feared that the developer "would become another poster boy [i.e., anecdotal horror story] for the anti-regulatory drive."

Riddle Farm was indeed a tough call, a case where wetlands protections and federal practices had changed substantially after work began. The developer might well have become a "poster boy" had Kostmayer persevered. But some wetlands would have been preserved -- in a state that already has lost more than 70 percent of such habitat.

And so, Kostmayer says: "We caved on Riddle Farm, just as we caved on so many of the tough issues. And what did we get for not antagonizing the Congress? We got the most destructive legislation on clean water and wetlands in modern history."

Others, including EPA insiders not unsympathetic to Kostmayer, argue that his firing was no simple matter of good vs. evil. They say he was a cage rattler in an administration that wanted consensus builders. He had a bent for tilting at windmills; an aversion to bureaucratic channels that made him a poor manager, unable to inspire the very change he called for.

In addition, he made a political blunder in granting a waiver to let a company stay in his home state of Pennsylvania, rather than move to West Virginia.

"I think Peter picked up the rhetoric of environment faster than he picked up the solutions; but I am very sympathetic to his views on the need to change EPA," says Bill Matuszeski, head of Chesapeake Bay Program Office of EPA's Region 3.

It is not necessary to glorify Kostmayer, or smear him, to realize that he has a point: For Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, there is potential common ground for changing the way we protect the environment without dismantling it.

Unfortunately, the volume just now is too loud for reason to be heard.

We get a steady diet of anecdotal horror stories and legislation written by corporate lobbyists on the one side. On the other, we get a hunkering down, duck-the-tough-ones attitude.

Also obscured in the current hue and cry is that some of the problems that led to the anti-regulatory backlash have already diminished appreciably in the past few years.

Agriculture and small property owners have been largely exempted from burdens due to wetlands on their land. Similarly, protection plans for endangered species are being modified more and more to be landowner-friendly.

And large-scale restorations like that of Chesapeake Bay are proving how private and voluntary efforts can go beyond government requirements -- so long as credible regulation provides backup.

I fear things are going to get worse before they get better; but I also feel that common ground and common sense -- and better environmental solutions -- do lie ahead.

Finally, let Peter Kostmayer leave you with a different "horror story," another kind of "poster child."

It is a project that frustrated him greatly -- one he could not, in the opinion of his regulatory and legal people, turn down: a proposal to locate a toxic waste treatment facility in the poor black community of Chester, Pa.

The plant passes environmental muster; but the people fear it, and their town already has Pennsylvania's highest rate of infant mortality and lead levels in kids high enough to depress their IQs.

"The law weighs only certain pollutants, and only major pollution sources, and does not require an assessment of cumulative impact on health," he says.

"It is a disaster, and I think it will be approved."

And he wonders: "What would happen if we sited such plants in Bryn Mawr or Haverford, the affluent, white communities?

"Don't you imagine we would then quickly get to the root problems -- how to stop creating so much waste in the first place?"

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