NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Government Lags Private Sector In Environmental Cleanup

February 7, 1996

By almost any measure, private companies outperform governmental entities when it comes to cleaning up the environment, according to many policy experts.

The environment has gotten cleaner over the past quarter century, with most of the gains made in the private sector. But further progress will be more costly, with hard-to-find benefits. Critics suggest that government now address the pollution problems it has created.

Here are some examples of the progress that has been made against air pollution:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that total air pollution has dropped 24 percent from 1970 through 1993.
  • Lead emissions have dropped 98 percent.
  • Carbon monoxide emissions fell 24 percent, while sulfur oxide pollution declined 30 percent..

With regard to water pollution:

  • The amount of oil spilled has declined from 22 million gallons per year in the mid-1970s to just two million gallons in 1992.
  • Between 1972 and 1992, 98 percent of the miles of rivers and streams kept or bettered their quality -- with only two percent declining..
  • For lakes, 96 percent of acres maintained or improved quality, with only four percent degrading..
  • By 1992, 90 percent of major municipalities and 93 percent of major industries with permits were in compliance with water quality standards.

Considering these advancements, experts now believe future progress depends upon government getting its own environmental act together.

  • For example, the EPA has found that the top polluting facility in California is the Department of Energy's own Naval Petroleum Reserve.
  • However, it is not included in the list of top 10 California polluters because federal sites are not yet required to report emissions.

The cleanup program known as Superfund is commonly considered the federal government's most egregious failure:

  • Of the more than 1,200 sites on Superfund's National Priority List, 160 are on lands controlled by federal agencies -- including one under EPA authority.
  • Only two of the federally-controlled sites, or 1.25 percent, have been cleaned up -- versus nearly five percent on private sites.
  • The General Accounting Office has complained that the EPA has not even developed a priority list for cleaning up waste sites.

Source: Daniel J. Murphy, "Cleaning Up After Government," Investor's Business Daily, February 7, 1996.


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