It’s time to remake the out-of-control EPA

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s purported “top climate change expert” and the agency’s highest paid employee, John C. Beale, was arrested and convicted of fraud.  Turns out that while at EPA, Beale pretended to also work for the CIA and for years had wasted his official employment time while loafing around his house in his underwear.  Taxpayers are mad about Beale’s theft of their money, and “climate change” advocates are humiliated, because Beale’s purported knowledge and expertise about this made-up subject was also similarly made up.  Beale was an expert at lying; that is it.

I am not surprised about the Beale scandal, because I worked at the U.S. EPA for seven years, from 1991 to 1998, as a GS-13 policy and legislative staffer.  With some exceptions, what I saw there among many other staff was consistent with Beale’s behavior.

After studying nascent environmental policy at Penn State in the 1980s, I went on to graduate school to study quantitative environmental policy, economics, and statistics, then all in their formative academic years.  After getting my M.A., my first job was at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, beginning in 1991, during the President George Herbert Walker Bush administration.  For the next seven years to the week, I worked in three different policy and legislative jobs at the EPA that took me across America and around the globe.

Much has been made in recent years of how the EPA has been run, which policies it follows, and those it does not.  My longtime observation is that since its founding, the EPA has steadily developed its own insular staff culture, which mirrors its standalone name.  Also, like most other federal agencies, the EPA is Washington, D.C.–oriented and staffed by people who live in and around the Washington Beltway.  Environmental policy, regulations, goals, and standards are mostly set in Washington, D.C., by people far removed from where and how these measures are applied, far from the people who live in and on America’s natural resources, and far from the actual results of EPA regulations.  EPA staff are usually from east-coast urban and suburban environments, which is to say they don’t really know much about the actual natural environment.  From the time of their childhood to the time they retire from the agency, most EPA staff are distant from the “flyover country” they regulate with such a heavy hand.  Flyover country is the enormous area between California and New Jersey, where natural resources and farms — actual environment itself — are owned and managed hands-on by people who get their hands dirty every day, taking risks and making sacrifices.

“Poor widdle farmer,” wrote the late Paul Parsons in an email to me in 1995.  Paul was a fellow pesticide regulator at the EPA, a good friend, and a good guy, despite his antagonism toward the people who grew his food.  Paul’s email summed up to me the disparaging attitude many EPA staff have toward Americans who actually work for a living.  I grew up in a farming community, and Paul’s email infuriated me.

When I started at the EPA, we were evaluating potential chemical impacts by parts per thousand and parts per million.  Now politicized pressure groups, agency staffers, and judges, not science, demand purity standards beyond naturally occurring background  amounts: detection rates of  parts per billion and even parts per trillion.  Or worse: Under the “Waters of the United States” regulation, every mud puddle in a farm field and every wet forest road ditch became subject to direct regulation by EPA bureaucrats without a whit of common sense or understanding of what they were doing to the people who lived there.

The EPA needs a serious makeover.  It is time to change its internal staff culture and to make it more accountable and responsive to the voters and taxpayers who fund the agency out of their pockets.  Step one would be a name change, like Department of Environment Quality, thereby shifting its outsider, “Lone Ranger” independent agency status to line agency, like the Department of the Interior, with an executive reporting directly to the U.S. president.  Step two: Merge it with the Department of Energy, whose time has long since come and gone and shares many overlapping roles and workload with the EPA.  Step three: Set agency employment standards that reward field experience and hands-on knowledge over theory and academic training.

Twenty-eight years ago, I respected the EPA for what it stood for, and despite leaving the agency because of all the John Beale types drawing a salary there while I put in overtime, I maintain a passion for commonsense environmental quality.  What I strongly object to is how politicized and unaccountable the agency has become and what a sham its top-down, bureaucrat-oriented, sledgehammer policies, rules, and regulations became under previous administrations.  And I always disliked how the agency staff were overwhelmingly all too eager to help that Big Brother attitude set in in the first place.

It is time for the EPA to become synonymous with good government.  John Beale just gave America a good reason to completely re-make the agency.

Josh First lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  He has worked for federal and state government and national and local land trusts and has run his own conservation business since 2004.