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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : James Strock : Monitoring the Environment as Head of California's EPA

October 03, 1993|Molly Selvin | Molly Selvin is an editorial writer for The Times

James M. Strock's ascent of 19,340-foot high Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania may well have been easy compared with his mission as California's first-ever secretary for environmental protection. Since he took office in 1991, Strock has been trying to map out the environmental terrain for his new agency, while battling the state's gusty economic elements. As a member of Gov. Pete Wilson's Cabinet, Strock heads the California Environmental Protec tion Agency (Cal/EPA), responsible for regulating air and water quality, toxics, pesticides and solid waste.

Strock sees his major challenge as holding fast to California's historic commitment to tough environmental laws through a recession that is shaking the state's economic foundation to its core. He walks a centrist line between businesses pleading for relief from some of the strongest environmental standards in the country, on the one hand, and environmentalists, on the other, who correctly point to a long list of unsolved ecological problems. Measured and serious, Strock is putting his energy into initiatives to streamline the state's onerous permitting process without diluting the substance of those regulations.

A Harvard-educated native of Texas, Strock, 37, is new to California but not to the tumult of environmental politics. Appointed by President George Bush, Strock served for two years as the EPA's chief law-enforcement officer; before that, he practiced environmental law in Denver and worked on Capitol Hill.

During his Washington days, Strock became a charter member of the national Theodore Roosevelt Society, devoted to study of the former President, and he is a walking encyclopedia of Rooseveltiana. Why is Roosevelt so compelling? To Strock, he embodied a view of government as an enabler, freeing business and capital, while at the same time preserving America's natural resources in what later became the national parks system. Not a bad role model.

Question: What are the most pressing environmental issues that now face President Clinton?

Answer: There are several. . . . His commitment . . . to better reconcile environmental protection and economic growth is important. There is a great opportunity right now--and this is reflected in Gov. Wilson's technology partnership in California--for American technologies for environmental protection to become economic benefits. That's dependent upon setting environmental standards, or goals, that are based on science and can be achieved . . . .

There's a real need for the President . . . to prioritize the various types of environmental regulation and to do so in a way that provides people with the ability to make decisions. Right now, environmental regulation tends to follow disasters, and that once there is a disaster and a new law is passed, the difficulty is: They may not work well together, or they may be setting implicit priorities that aren't what people would choose.

Question: What should those priorities be?

Answer: In California . . . we're beginning a comparative-risk effort that brings in people . . . from science and other disciplines, from various communities, with the goal of, first, finding out what our best understanding is of the scientific risks presented by various activities in the environmental area, and then . . . setting priorities . . . . That has to be an open process.

For example, scientists will often tell you that the risks presented by toxic-waste sites, in aggregate, are far less than some more common exposures, such as indoor air. However, one's view of that depends on whether one lives by a waste site. So we need the information--we need the dialogue to get moving . . . .

Right now, the U.S., as a whole, is spending more than 2% of its gross domestic product on environmental protection. A number of estimates are that, by the year 2000, this number could approach 3%. When you talk about numbers of that magnitude, under some scenarios environmental-protection investment could approach that of defense or education. People, in general, will correctly seek that their money be spent as well as possible. It's important for people who are concerned about the environment to lead that discussion . . . .

The other thing that I think is a big challenge, on the environmental side, is to do everything possible to make the federal EPA work better.

Q: How do you mean?

A: The EPA nationally works largely as an enforcement agency, as opposed to an enabling organization. And one thing that we're trying to do in California . . . is to try to be an enabler, as well as an enforcer. Now what does that mean? Well, the governor is very focused on having Cal/EPA work hard to assist in the development of new environmental technologies as we set standards and make regulations. . . . Unless that's done, there'll be a tremendous opportunity lost.

Q: How does California compare with the rest of the nation on environmental management? Are we ahead? Are we behind?

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