Is it time to get rid of the EPA?

Because many EPA policies and actions torture both statutes and common sense to a degree that approaches malfeasance, it’s no surprise that the agency is regularly reined in by the federal judiciary. In January, for instance, a federal court ruled that the EPA couldn’t regulate the amount of water flowing through Virginia’s Accotink Creek watershed. (The EPA argued that storm water is a pollutant under the Clean Water Act because it contributes to sediment buildup.) This regulatory action would have cost the county at least $300 million and Virginia’s Department of Transportation an additional $70 million.

Unscientific policies and regulatory grandiosity and excess are not EPA’s only failings; neglecting to weigh costs and benefits is shockingly common. In one analysis by the Office of Management and Budget, of the 30 least cost-effective regulations throughout the government, the EPA had imposed no fewer than 17. For example, the agency’s restrictions on the disposal of land that contains certain wastes prevent 0.59 cancer cases per year — about three cases every five years — and avoid $20 million in property damage, at an annual cost of $194 to $219 million. Moreover, EPA systematically exaggerates benefits and underestimates costs.

The EPA’s repeated failures should not come as a surprise because the agency has long been a haven for scientifically insupportable policies perpetrated by anti-technology ideologues. Lisa Jackson herself is a veteran of 16 years at the agency, having developing some of its most unscientific, wasteful and dangerous regulations. She worked on Superfund (officially, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), an ongoing EPA program intended to clean up and reduce the risk of toxic-waste sites. It was originally conceived as a short-term project — $1.6 billion over five years, to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has grown into one of the nation’s largest public works projects: more than $30 billion spent, on about 1,300 sites.

How could cleaning up toxic waste sites not be a good thing? Well, various studies have attempted to evaluate the impacts of Superfund’s massive and costly cleanups, but the results are equivocal. Putting that another way, after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, no beneficial results have been demonstrable. On the other hand, some Superfund projects have definitely caused harm. University of California economics professor J. Paul Leigh has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup projects and concluded that the risk of fatality to the average cleanup worker — a dump-truck driver involved in a collision or a laborer run over by a bulldozer, for example — is considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposures to untreated sites.

EPA official Carl Mazza admitted that the agency is aware that Superfund policies often conflict with risk analysis, but “political considerations” don’t permit rational, data-driven decision-making.

There are other ways in which EPA’s regulatory excesses kill more than jobs. The diversion of resources to comply with regulation (useful or not) exerts an “income effect” that reflects the correlation between wealth and health. It is no coincidence that richer societies have lower mortality rates than poorer ones. To deprive communities of wealth, therefore, is to enhance their health risks because wealthier individuals are able to purchase better healthcare, enjoy more nutritious diets and lead generally less stressful lives. Conversely, the deprivation of income itself has adverse health effects — for example, an increased incidence of stress-related problems, including ulcers, hypertension, heart attacks, depression and suicides.