Gorilla in the Closet

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Growing out of the death and destruction of the American War in Vietnam, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970 with overarching federal powers to assure American mothers and fathers that the air their children breathe and the water in which they fish, swim and drink from and over which they have no personal control, is safe. Today, 52 years later, EPA has strayed so far from its founding precepts of setting national technology-based pollution standards on a timely basis, working closely with state and local government to facilitate capacity building, ensuring delegated states do their job in holding polluters to account for those national standards, and using enforcement discretion and work with cooperating industry to tap into their knowledge to regulate pollution cost-effectively to reduce and prevent pollution, it is unrecognizable.

Only by stepping back and examining EPA’s history contained in Gorilla in the Closet, particularly from its early years when sweeping national environmental laws were rolled out, can we understand how these precepts to EPA’s organization and relationship-building were blown up, resulting in an unaccountable, overburdened federal agency of today that cannot do its job because it does not align limited resources and priorities with states and oversee their operations. EPA is tethered to whichever political party occupies the White House. It cannot have a strategic focus because of the ever-revolving door of its political leadership. It needs to be brought up to the times.

Indeed, the environmental lobby has captured EPA and the Democratic Party and believes all pollution problems can be solved from the banks of the Potomac River – ignoring the vast land use and police powers of local city and county government. Meanwhile, EPA is failing to regulate carbon emissions under existing statutory authority at a pace that will fulfill our commitment to reducing carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Change Accords. These are both mismanagement and staffing problems. The Republican Party is MIA on environmental and public health protection altogether.

Now with the existential crisis of climate change, we need to reorient EPA’s top-down paradigm and protect the costly gains we have made over the past fifty years. EPA must be rebooted as an independent, nonpartisan commission run by professional managers whose tenure outlives any administration and initiate a coast-to-coast local/state program focused on planning and mobilizing local governments and a new breed of grassroots environmental activists; and, supported by the whole of federal government, deal with the worst climatological effects of climate change by employing local government’s zoning, planning, building codes and police powers to reduce carbon emissions from homes, institutional structures, and businesses. This must be a sustained effort that requires reorientation of EPA’s successor, the National Environmental Protection Commission (NEPC), that is organized around three functional responsibilities, State/EPA implementation, which is decentralized to 50 NEPC State Ombudsmen and staff co-located with each state, standards setting (including R&D and environmental monitoring) and independent enforcement – all underpinned by a new statutorily mandated oversight system that negotiates in the federal/state/local hierarchy measures of performance, and reports accurately to Congress and the public our progress.

When the last iceberg melts, floods and fires redraw our cities, and seas consume our coastlines, the only polities that will stand will be local government, not the federal government. We need to implement a sustained, concerted effort to build and expand local environmental protection capacity starting now by honoring the federalist society we have and where all levels of government adhere to a power-sharing arrangement over environmental protection.