Principles for a Better Earth Day in the 21st Century

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Earth Day 1998 passed relatively unnoticed last month, although President Clinton and Vice-President Gore spent the day moving rocks, planting trees and calling for increased spending on old and new environmental programs.

The relaxed observance of Earth Day by people in the real world actually better reflects the state of the environment than does the president's call for more big- government environmental programs. The environment has improved a great deal since the first Earth Day in 1970 and in most respects is cleaner and greener than it was at the turn of the century when streets were little more than open sewers, waterborne and airborne diseases were epidemic and the Northeast was largely deforested. In addition, this progress has often come despite misguided federal environmental policies.

If we are building a bridge to a cleaner, healthier environment in the 21st century, this post-Earth Day, pre-millennium period might be a good time to consider a set of environmental policy principles that avoids the mistakes and builds on the successes of past policies. Let me suggest a set.

First, the federal government should adopt an environmental Hippocratic oath: "Do No Harm." The federal government is often the worst polluter and violator of environmental laws, though it exempts itself from environmental policies it imposes on the private sector.

Many government programs encourage or directly cause environmental harm. For example, inheritance taxes encourage environmental destruction by forcing rural landowners to sell their property to pay taxes. This often involves breaking up larger lands with great environmental value into smaller lots for intensive development. In addition, government-run or subsidized hurricane and flood insurance encourages the over-development of sensitive beaches, wetlands and floodplains.

Second, government programs must recognize that a healthy environment depends upon a healthy economy. The worst environmental problems are found in impoverished countries with stagnant economies. But wealth created in a growing economy makes possible the technological innovations necessary for environmental improvements, and citizens in wealthier societies are healthier and spend more on environmental quality. As proof, in the United States while GNP rose approximately 65 percent and per capita disposable personal income rose from $13,404 to $18,136 between 1975 and 1993, levels of all major air pollutants decreased. Sulfur dioxide levels decreased 50.3 percent; carbon monoxide levels 60.5 percent and lead 97.1 percent.

During the same time period water quality showed a similar improvement. For example, the release of organic wastes was reduced 46 percent and the release of toxic metals was reduced by 98 percent.

As companies in competitive market economies seek to become more efficient, they reduce the amount of pollution produced.

Third, environmental regulators should only punish real polluters. As it is now, regulators often punish people simply for faulty, incomplete paperwork or non- harmful activities. When people's activities cause harm, they should be punished - with the burden of proving harm resting with the government. Environmental laws should specify standards to be met based upon the health and safety of citizens, and allow citizens and businesses to find the best ways to meet those standards. And the standards must be related to substantial harms, not hypothetical or minuscule risks to health or vague subjective criteria like "environmental health." Punishing only those who are responsible for real environmental harm is fair and provides the correct incentives for regulators and private parties alike.

Finally, since most environmental problems are local in cause and effect, they call for local solutions. Yet, in recent years federal environmental agencies have ignored constitutional constraints and become enmeshed in intrastate environmental matters. Superfund is perhaps the worst example. Almost all of its chemical waste cleanup projects are local, and the Environmental Protection Agency bungles those. Superfund has spent more than $30 billion over 16 years, but of the more than 1,300 sites on the National Priorities List fewer than 200 have been cleaned up and removed from the list. Between 36 cents and 60 cents of every dollar spent on Superfund has gone to lawyers' fees and other transaction costs.

Can local efforts have more success? Yes, when not hampered by "one-size- fits-all" centralized federal legislation. For instance, in just two years of existence, Pennsylvania's land recycling program has cleaned more than 240 of some 300 contaminated sites entered in the program. In contrast, in 16 years only 10 of the 103 federal Superfund sites in Pennsylvania have been certified as ready for reuse.

There is nothing environmentally friendly about holding fast to out-dated, costly laws that are often environmentally harmful. Unfortunately, our current policies are so focused on micro-managment that what happens to the environment itself is treated as unimportant or incidental. Perhaps, the principles described here as policies would put things into proper perspective.