In the Age of Obama, there are many viable candidates for the official title of Washington’s “Private Sector Enemy Number One.” You could make a strong case for the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and others, but my choice would be the Environmental Protection Agency.
For over 20 years, I have gathered stories about ways in which the EPA has perpetrated misfeasance and malfeasance, misdeed, and mischief. Let me say that I mean no offense to the many employees of the EPA who conduct their professional lives with integrity and on the basis of sound science. My target is the hyper-politicized leadership of EPA and its henchmen who have misbehaved.
Here are just a few of the significant “lowlights” of the EPA’s record:
The political nature of the EPA became clear not long after President Nixon established it in 1970. In 1972 the first administrator of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus, banned the insecticide DDT after his own hearing examiner concluded, on the basis of several hundred technical documents and testimony of 150 scientists, that DDT ought not to be banned.
In 1978, the EPA tried to suppress research showing the cost of proposed air pollution standards. If Pennsylvania’s two senators at the time (John Heinz and Richard Schweiker) hadn’t intervened, the EPA would have imposed standards stringent enough to effectively shut down the U.S. steel industry.
In 1991, a panel of outside scientists brought in to review EPA practices concluded (among other things) that the EPA often tailors its science to justify what it wants to do and shields key research from peer review. EPA Administrator William Reilly acknowledged, “scientific data have not always been featured prominently in environmental efforts and have sometimes been ignored even when available.”
The EPA has ignored epidemiological evidence to foment false alarms about the dangers of ozone, radon, Alar (used in apple orchards), dioxins, and asbestos. The asbestos story is illustrative. Not only did the EPA, in 1989, decree an eight-year phase-out of asbestos despite studies from Oxford, Harvard, the Canadian Royal commission, New Jersey, etc. that the health risks posed by asbestos-lined buildings were miniscule, EPA’s administrators even ignored the EPA’s own scientific panel, which denounced the study used to justify the ban on asbestos as “unconvincing,” “scientifically unappealing,” and “absurd.” (Thankfully, sanity returned and EPA Administrator Reilly rescinded the ban a year later.) The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals officially deep-sixed the asbestos ban in October, 1991, on the grounds that the EPA had exceeded its legislated authority—a not-uncommon finding replicated multiple times in subsequent years, such as when the EPA has used the Clean Water Act (which pertains explicitly to “navigable waters”) as a pretext to regulate lands where puddles form after heavy rains.
It seems that the most visible EPA Administrators were the most problematical. In the 1990s, under the leadership of Carol Browner, the EPA refused to divulge how it calculated cost-benefit analyses. Indeed, in 1997 Browner admitted that new research would be required to set a “scientifically defensible” standard for air quality issues that would “fill obvious and critical voids in our knowledge.” The Browner-led EPA also blatantly broke federal law by actively lobbying against legislation designed to curb some of EPA’s abuses. Browner herself broke the law by defying a federal judge’s orders and overseeing the erasure of the hard drives and the destruction of back-up email tapes that she had used as administrator.
One of the most amazing rulings to come out of Browner’s EPA was a letter sent to the city of San Diego, ordering them to stop treating the sewage pouring into the Tijuana River Valley on the grounds that human actions were disturbing the “sewage-based ecology” of the affected estuary—ignoring the fact that the sewage posed a health threat to human beings (whose “ecology” obviously wasn’t considered as important by the EPA).
In 1993, Senator Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) wrote to Browner expressing concern that EPA hadn’t submitted a report of cost-benefit studies it was required to submit to Congress under Section 812 of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Not only did Browner not even bother to reply, the agency still hadn’t completed a report by 1995. Meanwhile, the EPA is notorious for imposing fines on businesses that are late in submitting the piles of paperwork filings that EPA requires of them.
So bad did things get during Browner’s tenure that in 1996, a 27-year veteran microbiologist at the agency went public with his concerns about the lowering of scientific standards under Browner, alleging, for example, that the science EPA used in wastewater toxicity tests was unreliable, and that EPA had become more interested in issuing regulations than in practicing sound science. Similarly, during the summer of 1998, a dozen career employees at EPA went public about the agency’s “egregious misconduct.” These whistleblowers charged that people who work at EPA “are harassed, even fired, for protesting illegal or irresponsible behavior by managers who jeopardize the proper enforcement of the law.”
Barack Obama’s recently departed EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, also distinguished herself by placing political agendas over sound science (and also, like Browner, breaking the laws governing the computer records of public officials—in her case, by trying to hide what she was doing through use of a bogus email identity).
Jackson showed her disregard for scientific rigor by seeking to replace actual samples of air quality with computer estimations of air pollution. Considering the agency’s considerable power to act as judge and jury and bring businesses to their knees, it hardly seems like justice to empower the EPA to enter whatever data it chooses into a computer program and essentially produce evidence based on its own assumptions.
There is much more to tell about the EPA’s troublesome history, but this is enough depressing information for one article. Part Two will soon follow.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.