Environment vs. business: worry, confusion, progress


LAST WEEK THE governor appointed a committee to see if Maryland's worker-safety rules need fixing. Johns Hopkins University got $1.85 million to learn how to lay odds on whether things will kill us.

U.S. senators worked to limit environmental laws. And scientists once blasted by industry critics won a Nobel Prize for showing that pollutants threaten the ozone layer.

So it goes in business regulation. We worry. We overlegislate. We complain. We underlegislate. And sometimes we learn something and get it right.

The complaints are getting the most attention lately. Especially here.

Maryland businesses have groused about environmental policies and safety procedures forever. But the state's sputtering economy is making lawmakers listen. Maryland would be adding more jobs, the argument goes, if our business enforcers imitated their counterparts in more enlightened parts to the south and west.

Maryland regulators are confused drill sergeants with Napoleon complexes. Virginia regulators are wise, nurturing counselors of 12-step economic empowerment. Or so you could believe.

Much of the criticism, and much of what state executives are trying to change, has more to do with the administration of existing safeguards than with the safeguards themselves. Why should a Maryland manager troop around to four agencies run by three governments to get five permits for one item? Why can't regulators return phone calls?

That's a management problem, and improving it may be relatively easy. The task force that Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed last week to study Maryland's occupational health laws was directed to "develop reforms, not rollbacks" and to identify "duplicative" rules and "procedures or regulations which lack common sense."

That won't prevent arguments. One person's reform is another person's license to pollute, maim and discriminate.

But the truly difficult issues of business regulation aren't procedural. They have to do with the rules themselves and the uncommon sense -- complex science and analysis -- on which they are supposed to be built.

Businesses and their congressional allies are asking for proof that environmental laws are keeping people healthier. At worst, they charge, some cures are more poisonous than the problems. At better, health laws hinder commerce for no reason.

Is burning our trash and spewing its ashes skyward really better than burying it? Was stripping asbestos from schools and stirring up its cancerous fibers better than simply shellacking it to the wall?

Why can't we relax soil-pollution standards for abandoned industrial sites in Baltimore so we can build new factories there? Have air pollution laws really reduced disease?

Many people in Congress believe that the questions are answerable. Both a House bill already passed and a pending Senate bill place great stock in "risk assessment" -- formal statistical analysis of health threats and their costs.

If you can't show scientifically that a regulation will help, they say, don't pass it. Surely modern science is up to the job.

It's not.

Advocates of risk assessment "basically say that the science is ready and that that public policy tool is ready to be put to use," said Kathryn Hohmann, director of environmental quality for the Sierra Club. "It's really a fledgling science."

The Sierra Club is fighting the bills. Ms. Hohmann is sharply biased.

But scientists themselves and at least some business people agree.

CSX Corp., hardly in the cadre of what Rush Limbaugh calls "wacko environmentalists," gave the $1.85 million to Johns Hopkins last week on the assumption that risk assessment needs improvement.

The railroad's grant establishes the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute at Hopkins' School of Hygiene and Public Health. The institute's co-directors, Thomas Burke and Jonathan Samet, want to increase risk research, boost education and offer advanced degrees in risk assessment.

Congressional advocates of environmental deregulation "are saying: 'Prove this. Prove that this is effective. Prove that this saves lives,' " Dr. Burke said. "Right now that's questionable. We don't have the tools."

One problem is complexity. Figuring out exactly which molecules and combinations of molecules cause disease among the thousands of substances we eat, breathe and drink is daunting.

Another is that research on environmental disease among humans is not as good as it should be, Dr. Burke said. And that's the nub, as businesses and environmentalists might agree: how pollution policies help or hurt real people in the real world. Enlisting a public health institution like Hopkins, Dr. Burke argued, will help.

Meanwhile, we have lesser tools. Lab experiments. Animal tests. Mathematical equations. Extrapolation. Assumption. Sometimes they're enough.

Twenty-one years ago laboratory research by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina showed that chemicals used in air conditioners and aerosol cans would seriously damage the ozone layer, which protects Earth against solar radiation. Chemical manufacturers howled. The findings were just calculations, they said. Conditional theories.

Last week, the scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Dr. Molina and Dr. Rowland, said the Nobel committee, "have contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences."

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