TCS Daily

Science Tsar Can't Resolve Environmental Policy Dilemmas

By Lynn Scarlett - April 2, 2001 12:00 AM

In a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, members of the House Science subcommittee on the environment, technology and standards heard testimony that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ought to have a deputy administrator for science. Science, witnesses at the hearing opined, gets short shrift in decisions about which substances to regulate and how to regulate them. A science deputy, they said, might elevate the role of science in informing regulatory decisions.

This thirst for rigorous science is understandable. But a new deputy administrator will neither guarantee hoped-for scientific rigor nor mute conflict over proposed pollution-reduction standards. Endless conflicts over "how clean is clean enough" result because answering this question is, essentially, as much about values and interests as it is about scientific knowledge.

Science -- and its use to inform decisions about regulatory standards -- is not alien to the EPA. For at least a decade, the EPA has used risk assessment tools.

One of the Clinton administration's last controversial decisions -- to set allowable arsenic levels in drinking water to 10 parts per billion -- emerged out of a mountain of scientific documents. Similar scientific documentation backed the Clinton administration's much-disputed 1997 proposal to tighten air-pollution standards. Mary Nichols, then EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, emphasized that the standards resulted from "a solid scientific foundation." She even called the process for setting those standards a "paradigm for, to use the phrase we hear so often, 'sound science.'"

The problem is not the lack of an EPA science guardian as envisioned by those wanting to create a deputy administrator for science. The problem is more complex and not resolvable through adding new deck chairs to the EPA ship.

In the first place, environmental challenges are themselves complex, as are the links between human and eco-system health and the presence of chemical and other byproducts of human production and consumption. George Wolff, as chairman of EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, reviewed the science literature on the health effects of ozone prior to EPA's development of its 1997 air quality standards. The committee, he said, had concluded "that there is no 'bright line' which distinguishes any of the proposed standards ... as being significantly more protective of public health." Selection of a standard, he noted "is a policy judgment."

Ozone is not unique in this regard. Risks depend on details -- the individual substance, likely exposure to the pollutant, the forms of exposure, and individual sensitivities. There is, often, no clear-cut answer to the question of how clean is clean enough.

The challenge for policymakers lies not only in the complexity of environmental problems themselves. Risk assessments necessarily involve making assumptions. They also require reams of data on toxicity and exposures. The more limited the available data, the more numerous are the assumptions needed to perform a risk assessment.

But assumptions introduce disagreement and render conclusions more tentative. In establishing rules to reduce pollution in the Great Lakes basin in 1995, for example, EPA prepared an extensive risk assessment to come up with limits on some chemicals. The assumptions used for this assessment, according to one critical report, may have overestimated risks by as much as 3,200 percent.

The critic may or may not have been correct about the scope of overestimation. What is certain is that risk assessments often produce this sort of dispute about assumptions and risk results.

A science tsar at EPA won't eliminate these disputes. A deputy administrator for science at EPA might, of course, help establish clearer guidelines for doing risk assessments. More uniform -- and transparent -- use of science and associated tools like risk assessment could be an improvement over the status quo. But no EPA science tsar can overcome the limits of federal statutes.

Figuring out how clean is clean enough involves questions that go beyond science. Regulators also need some idea of what achieving a proposed standard will cost. Using public and private-sector resources to reduce a risk by some amount absorbs resources that could, in theory, be applied toward resolving some other problems instead. Regulators face trade offs, which is why weighing the costs of achieving some goal against hoped-for benefits is important.

But some of our federal environmental statutes expressly forbid taking costs into account when setting a regulatory standard. Costs can only be considered when selecting the possible tools for achieving a standard -- not in selecting the standard itself. A central problem, though, is that how tightly a standard is set has fundamental cost implications. One simply cannot separate the selection of the goal from the assessment of costs to society for pursuing that goal.

When a few critics of the 1997 proposed clean air standards argued they would be costly, EPA officials replied that, by law, they could not take costs into account in setting the standards. A deputy administrator for science would continue to face such constraints.

Some economists, scientists and people in industry wring their hands over what sometimes seems an irrational goal-setting process. We've seen a decade of proposals for better risk assessment, more cost-benefit analysis, more or better science, more data, and more opportunities to review science reports used for rulemaking.

Out of all this hand wringing, new decision-making tools have increasingly entered into the decision process. Recent Safe Drinking Water Act revisions allow for some consideration of costs. The Clinton administration's executive order on risk assessment outlines what many scientists think are pretty good risk-assessment guidelines.

EPA, under Carol Browner, used these tools to advance a new arsenic standard for drinking water. Yet still we have conflict -- and legitimate questions -- about whether these standards are the right ones. After all, though EPA looked at costs, it used the costs faced by large drinking water facilities as its measure of the price tag for the new rule. Using these costs, the rule might have met a cost-benefit test. The rule's critics, though, paint a different picture for many of the nation's smaller drinking water facilities.

These kinds of disagreement won't go away with the appointment of a science tsar at EPA. In fact, they will never go away, because setting environmental standards involves policy decisions -- decisions about priorities and judgments about what levels of risk are acceptable. These are matters over which reasonable people will disagree.

If the goal of creating a science overseer at EPA is to generate better use of science, then lawmakers might consider a different option. The scientific assessments so important to understanding environmental problems and their relationship to human (and ecosystem) require independence. "Good science" requires insulation from programmatic momentum and budgetary concerns that preoccupy regulators.

So, while lawmakers may want to give EPA a deputy assistant for science, they should consider establishing a separate, fully independent forum in which the scientific (and cost) dimensions of "how clean is clean enough" can be explored. This kind of forum won't eliminate the value and policy judgments intrinsic to questions about public health and safety. But it might better ensure that rigorous science more systematically informs policy decisions.


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