Monday, April 22, 2019

Op-Ed: Are Pennsylvania's Environmental Regulations Really Too Costly, Intrusive And Pointless?

By Dr. Richard Kaplan

There are a number of efforts on the part of the Harrisburg House majority to reduce and hamstring environmental pollution control authorities of the Department of Environmental Resources.  
From the House co-sponsorship memoranda posted Jan. 28, 2019, by Rep. Benninghoff to support the introduction of legislation to give the General Assembly the ability to repeal existing regulations: “Costly, intrusive and pointless regulations, sometimes decades old, are an often-cited impediment to economic growth and place unnecessary burdens on Pennsylvania’s citizens and taxpayers, farmers, local governments and small businesses.”
As I read this and the companion anti-regulatory agencies legislation being offered in both Houses of the Legislature, I am wondering which regulations are considered “intrusive and pointless.”   
Do these legislators believe that regulating emissions that can damage human health and/or the environment is pointless and intrusive?  
Let’s look at these two terms.  We’ll come back to costly later.
First let’s discuss “intrusive.”  
No one likes to be questioned, no one likes to have their shoulder looked over, no one likes to be audited.  I know this very well as I ran compliance programs, including environmental and safety programs at several pharmaceutical companies in Pennsylvania.  
Yes, inspections and permit review are intrusive and create anxiety at sites.  However, the intrusiveness derives from the responsibility of the Government to protect the public.  
If activities that can potentially pollute the environment with materials that are toxic to humans, then the care that such processes should have should not be left to those who profit from the activities that generate pollution.  
The history of pollution in the Commonwealth is rife with a lack of controls impacting public health, many due to lack of government oversight.  
I live in a township adjoining Ambler, Beaver County, which has been the site of two asbestos Superfund sites.  
The lack of management of asbestos-containing wastes in Ambler allowed these cancer-causing fibres to waft about in the weather, which resulted, in part, in a three-fold increase in cases of mesothelioma in Ambler over State levels.  
A very rare cancer in those not exposed to asbestos, but a lack of government-oversight—no intrusiveness there--resulted in a number of fatal cancers.  
Abandoned chemical waste sites throughout the country resulted in “Superfund” becoming the law of the land.  Pennsylvania has been third in the nation with Superfund sites, now the count is over 90 sites.
Let’s be clear, Superfund sites are those that consist of abandoned toxic chemical sites for which there had not been oversight.
Today, the people of Pennsylvania and the United States are paying a great percentage of the clean-up costs for these sites which had “benefited” from the lack of intrusiveness by the regulatory agencies of Pennsylvania and the United States.
Now let’s explore the term “pointless.”  It usually means that some action has no intended consequence or objective.  
Environmental regulations—and there are many, many of them--are intended to protect the public from air, water and soil pollution.  
In my experience regulations were and still are being written with the goal of protecting the public, usually in response to identified problems.  
For example, the Federal Clean Air Act was implemented due to the dirty state of the air that many in Pennsylvania were breathing.  
A little history here—Donora, a town in Southwest Pennsylvania, experienced an air inversion in 1948 which kept the poisons being released by two neighboring manufacturing plants in the air of the town.
Twenty people died rapidly from this, long before Federal and State laws implemented programs to prevent such pollution and save lives.  
As the Clean Air Act and all its enormous requirements were implemented, there was no argument about its details being pointless.  DEP and EPA are responsible for having much cleaner air although we are far from having pristine air—this is the price we pay for an industrial civilization.  
I do not see how the prevention of public health disasters and assuring that those emitting pollution are under significant scrutiny are pointless.  In fact, quite the opposite.
I cannot imagine a legislature, with their political, economic and constituency issues—both big and small—could necessarily make decisions on the scientific and technical issues inherent in environmental regulation.
The reason we have regulatory agencies is that they constitute the objective experts—they are educated and trained in pollution and the rules.  
Most legislators are neither scientists nor engineers, nor have they studied the reasons for pollution control to the extent that the regulators have.
Which brings us to “costly.”  
I knew quite well how much compliance was costing the companies I worked for.  Those costs did not obviate the need for the controls and technologies to prevent releases of dangerous materials into the environment.  
Consider again air pollution.  Some of the Clean Air Act priority pollutants—ozone and particulate matter—have been shown to cause and/or exacerbate respiratory diseases, such as asthma.  
There are parts of the public that are considered more vulnerable to these toxic effects, particularly the young and the elderly.  These are not abstractions but real people—our children, our parents and grandparents.
Some have said that the costs of some health-related regulations are too high for the benefit.  That argument has been foisted to support the Federal roll-back of the mercury standard for coal plants.  
Yet even the preparers of the proposed roll-back indicate some fatalities would result.  And many of these economic evaluations do not include the healthcare costs of injury and illness caused by pollutants.
In a country as rich as ours, with energy companies being some of the most profitable, it is ridiculous to proclaim that regulations are too costly.  
If regulations are too costly, then we the people are just pawns to be sacrificed on the altar of the economy when protecting us becomes too costly.  
Rep. Benninghoff says that some regulations pose an “unnecessary burden on Pennsylvania’s citizens . . .”  
Allowing more pollution, lessening the power and authority of the objective, independent regulatory agency, and the rise in medical costs also place serious burdens on the public.  

Dr. Richard Kaplan is an Adjunct Professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, a volunteer for PennEnvironment and a retired pharmaceutical environmental executive; from Fort Washington, he can be contacted by email at
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