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ENVIRONMENT : EPA Chief Seeks to Clear the Air on Anti-Pollution Regulations : Browner's 'common sense initiative' would try to end the 'toxic shell game' of shuffling waste problems from one form to another. It is also meant to simplify process for businesses.

August 02, 1994|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Only in the Byzantine world of regulatory politics could something called the "common sense initiative" be called a revolution. But the federal government's chief environmental regulator is touting common sense as the newest wrinkle in rule-making to protect the environment.

Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is calling for "a new generation" of rules that "work in tandem rather than at cross purposes" to control pollution.

Late last month, Browner launched a pilot program to devise packages of regulations tailored for six industries: metal plating, electronics and computers, automobile, petroleum, printing, and iron and steel.

Those packages would replace a costly and confusing tangle of regulations designed to protect air, land and water individually.

"We're always sending the message that your air problem is separate from your water problem, which is separate from your waste problem, which is separate from your worker safety problem--the message that environmental protection can and should be split apart into different pieces," said Nikki Roy, a former EPA regulator and now an analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.

"But if you're interested in pollution prevention, you need to think of all these things at the same time."

Adhering to regulations designed to protect and clean the environment now costs U.S. industries at least $30 billion a year. And yet, under often-conflicting federal regulations, industries are playing what Roy called "toxic shell games," where pollutants are shuffled from air to water, or water to land, or land to air.

For most industries, keeping up with the EPA's complex of regulations is frustrating and costly. And for regulators lurching from environmental crisis to environmental crisis, the rule-making process has become a discouraging routine of plugging holes and fighting industries. The result, said Browner recently: "Too little environmental protection at too high a cost (and) increasing frustration with the process of environmental regulation."

Here are two of the plentiful examples of the problem:

* Until recently at steel plants nationwide, clean-water regulations prevented the disposal of waste water laden with toxic contaminants into nearby rivers, lakes or sewage facilities. But federal regulations appeared to allow plant employees to use the waste water to cool superheated coke as it came out of huge ovens. That took care of the waste water: It was instantly vaporized, and the ammonia, benzene and cyanide it contained passed out into the air through the plant's ventilation system. In recent years, the EPA has worked to close the regulatory loophole, but similar ones are always cropping up.

* One large chemical manufacturing facility in New Jersey, following a directive issued by the EPA's office of air quality, installed a "wet air scrubber" on its smokestack--a device that washes smog-producing contaminants out of the airstream and dissolves them into waste water. A different EPA directive--this one issued by the agency's office of water quality--required the firm to install a device that strips pollutants out of waste water and releases them back into the air. Installing this revolving door for pollutants cost the company $3 million. But the effect was the same as if no anti-pollution devices had been installed.

Under the new EPA initiative, industry and labor representatives, environmental and citizens' groups and federal and state regulators would gather together to develop what Browner called "a blueprint for how to achieve real environmental protection" in given industries. Everything is on the table, including the possibility of new legislation, Browner said. The six industries represent 11% of U.S. gross domestic product and employ nearly 4 million people.

The effort at environmental perestroika comes at a time when the EPA is under unprecedented attack on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers have cited the agency's history of generating complex and costly regulations to oppose a welter of new environmental initiatives.

Among the legislation held up by the congressional opposition is a bill setting purity standards for drinking water, another designed to reduce pollution in lakes, rivers and streams, and a proposal to elevate EPA to Cabinet status.

"Some of the complaints we hear are legitimate," Browner acknowledged recently.

"We tell people to go in five directions at one time. We cannot continue this incremental system of regulation."

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