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EPA Looks Forward

by Rudy M. Baum
December 6, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 49

The Environmental Protection Agen­cy commemorated its 40th anniversary last week, in part by announcing the launch of a groundbreaking study by the National Research Council on incorporating sustainability concepts into all of the agency’s programs.

While celebrating EPA’s accomplishments since its founding in 1970, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson pointed to challenges the agency now faces in comments at a briefing for the press, EPA and NRC staff, and other interested parties.

“Whether it’s global climate change, electronic waste, or environmental justice, today’s issues are broad in scope and widespread in their impacts,” Jackson said at the briefing. “It’s not clear that the strategies of the past are the best strategies for producing the necessary solutions.

“The old approach was essential to helping us assess and manage risk,” Jackson continued. “But it focused on how environmentally abusive we could be. We have a new opportunity now to focus on how environmentally protective and sustainable we can be. It’s the difference between treating disease and pursuing wellness.”

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, also spoke at the briefing. “Sustainability and sustainable development are concepts that have for some time rolled off our tongues—compelling ideas that have resisted clear definition,” Cicerone said. The new study, which is due to be completed under a tight timetable by next summer, “could represent a pivotal view of where sustainability is now and help define EPA’s ability to incorporate sustainability into the agency’s activities,” he added.

Cicerone said the study will address questions such as the following:

■ What should be the operational framework for sustainability for EPA?

■ How can the EPA decision-making process, rooted for more than two decades in the risk assessment/risk management paradigm, be integrated into this new sustainability framework?

■ What scientific and analytical tools are needed to support the framework?

■ What set of strategic metrics and indicators should EPA build to determine if sustainable approaches are or are not being employed successfully?

■ Which assessment techniques and accounting protocols should EPA adopt to improve agency sustainability practices?

Bernard D. Goldstein, a professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, will chair the committee.

In her comments, Jackson pointed to EPA’s record of accomplishments during its 40 years of existence. She cited 10, among them the removal of lead from gasoline, reduction of acid rain, regulation of secondhand smoke, banning the widespread use of DDT, progress in environmental justice issues, and the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act.

“Because of EPA’s efforts over 40 years, lives have been saved, ecosystems restored, and communities revitalized,” Jackson said. “It’s incredible to look back at where we started and see how far we’ve come. The things we have learned in the last 40 years must now be built into our vision for the next 40 years and beyond.”

Jackson concluded: “What I am announcing today is not an initiative, program, or project. It is the beginning of a new approach. It is a step toward the more effective pursuit of all of our work, including our statutory requirements, by incorporating sustainability into our foundations.” She cited an ambitious list of priorities for EPA, including taking action on climate change, improving air quality, ensuring the safety of chemicals, protecting the nation’s waters, and continuing to work for environmental justice.

EPA has played a central role in changing our relationship to the environment. It is remarkable, really, to realize that, a mere 50 years ago, humans for the most part considered themselves apart from and superior to the ecosystems in which they existed. We have a long way to go before we achieve a truly sustainable economic system. But we’ve made a start.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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