House Subcommittee evaluates environmental progress and priorities

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Publication date: 
8 March 2013

The House Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Environment held a February 14 hearing on “the State of the Environment: Evaluating Progress and Priorities” during which Members assessed broad environmental trends and indicators, explored what progress is still needed to protect human health and the environment, and considered how to achieve those advances.  A hearing charter prepared by Science Committee Republican staff contends that “a systematic process for evaluating the state of the environment, environmental priorities at EPA, or conducting comprehensive retrospective analyses on environmental progress has yet to be developed.”  The charter also states that another factor “hampering the assessment of general environmental health is the lack of data available to make such evaluations.”

Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) described the “dramatic improvements in the environmental health of this country” that have occurred in the last four decades in conjunction with significant growth in GDP and per capita income.  He expressed his views on the role of the media in raising concern about the “invented crisis” of environmental threats, saying “despite the substantial progress made in environmental health and quality of life, Americans are constantly bombarded by the media and this Administration with doomsday predictions.“ 

Harris questioned this “disconnect” stating that there is a need for educating the public on the environmental progress made over the last decades and “second, we must also acknowledge that most of the gains made in environmental health thus far were changes that were affordable, or if they had high costs, the associated benefits were clear, significant, and cost effective.”  He did seem willing to consider environmental regulations but stressed that they would need to be based on “good, transparent science.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) took a different approach.  She stated “it’s a matter of common sense that we must coordinate research and technological innovation to enhance air and water quality to protect the health of our children and future generations.”  She was interested to hear about “the science that has led to the successful EPA regulations that are acknowledged by all three witnesses,” in their prepared testimony.  Regarding emerging environmental threats, shepredicted that “as technology changes, as our research methodology becomes more accurate, as industries change and new industries are created, as populations grow, new problems will continue to emerge.”

Bonamici countered a few other points raised by Harris noting that “a bipartisan Congress took a very important step by including funding provisions for states and cities” in the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.  “The environmental laws that we are discussing in this hearing have hardly been the drag on the economy that some predicted when they were passed in the late 60s and early 70s.”  She highlighted that “both majority witnesses [witnesses asked to testify in the hearing by the Republican Chairman] make mention of economic growth in the face of environmental regulation in their testimony, using data provided by the EPA. Over the last 20 years, while emissions of the six principal air pollutants were reduced by an additional 41 percent, the nation’s Gross Domestic Product has increased by more than 64 percent.”

Three witnesses testified.  The first was Kathleen Harnett White, Distinguished Senior Fellow and Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  The second was Richard Trzupek, Principal Consultant at Trinity Consulting, and the third was Bernard Goldstein, Professor and Dean Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health. 

During the question period Harris grilled witnesses on whether further EPA regulations would reduce the number of cases of childhood asthma.  His concern was that the rate of childhood asthma seems to have increased at the same time that environmental quality seems to have improved and that further regulations would be costly and would not affect childhood asthma rates.  Goldstein commented that there are many factors affecting asthma rates, including ozone and variability in diagnostic criteria. 

Harris also questioned whether the data which the EPA uses to make regulatory decisions should be made publicly available.  Goldstein responded that he strongly opposed raw data being made publicly available.  White and Trzupek disagreed and stated that this data should be made available. 

Bonamici asked Goldstein to clarify why it is important to consider cost-benefits for examining the causes, mitigation, and consequences associated with environmental hazards.   She then asked the witnesses to compare the costs of EPA regulations with the cost of health care and the impact that health care costs have on the deficit.  White commented that she felt that the regulations were imputing health risks at levels that were too low to justify the costs.  

The partisan tone of this hearing demonstrated where there are areas of significant disagreement between Republican and Democratic Members.  The questions asked to witnesses highlighted the contrast between the view held by Harris that many EPA regulations seem unnecessarily costly and the view held by Bonamici that the regulations play a vital role in preventing and mitigating health costs.