EPA: Music to My Ears

Today Lisa P. Jackson introduced herself to those who will comprise her staff once she is confirmed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator. In a memo, she points to three “values” that she pledges “will shape everything.” Specifically:

1) “Science must be the backbone for EPA programs. The public health and environmental laws that Congress has enacted depend on rigorous adherence to the best available science. The President believes that when EPA addresses scientific issues, it should rely on the expert judgment of the Agency’s career scientists and independent advisors. When scientific judgments are suppressed, misrepresented or distorted by political agendas, Americans can lose faith in their government to provide strong public health and environmental protection.

The laws that Congress has written and directed EPA to implement leave room for policy judgments. However, policy decisions should not be disguised as scientific findings. I pledge that I will not compromise the integrity of EPA’s experts in order to advance a preference for a particular regulatory outcome.

2) EPA must follow the rule of law. The President recognizes that respect for Congressional mandates and judicial decisions is the hallmark of a principled regulatory agency. Under our environmental laws, EPA has room to exercise discretion, and Congress has often looked to EPA to fill in the details of general policies. However, EPA needs to exercise policy discretion in good faith and in keeping with the directives of Congress and the courts. When Congress has been explicit, EPA cannot misinterpret or ignore the language Congress has used. When a court has determined EPA’s responsibilities under our governing statutes, EPA cannot turn a blind eye to the court’s decision or procrastinate in complying.

3) EPA’s actions must be transparent. . . . In 1983, EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus promised that EPA would operate ‘in a fishbowl’ and ‘will attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate . . . as openly as possible.'”

Jackson also outlined what she views as her agency’s top five priorities as the Obama administration sets up shop: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, cleaning the nation’s air, managing chemical risks (in consumer products, the workplace and the environment), cleaning up hazardous-waste sites and protecting the U.S. waters.

She’s saying all of the right things. Moreover, her stated policy and priorities depart from those actually implemented by her predecessor, where science was not always the agency’s hallmark and protection of the environment was frequently not an apparent top priority. Let’s just hope this chemical engineer can and will follow through.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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