Says Billions Wasted on Imagined Risks
By Michael J. Bennett, Author of “The Asbestos Racket”
Originally Published Dec 12 1994
The “practitioners of public interest science” hailed by Ralph Nader a generation ago as “first line trustees in the management of silent violence in an industrialized society” have been exposed as unprofessional incompetents.
“Physicians, attorneys, policemen, firefighters, plumbers and electricians are required to undergo substantial training, apprenticeship and training (but) no formal training in risk assessment or risk management is required of the policy makers, risk managers and risk assessors who participate in the making of these weighty regulatory decisions.”
That is the conclusion of a study from “a most unlikely source the – government itself,” as The Wall Street Journal editorialized on Dec. 6. Choices in Risk Assessment, prepared by the nonprofit Regulatory Impact Analysis Project for the U.S. Department of Energy, has established environmental regulations costing $500 bilIion-a-year are often based on “overstated assumptions” designed to produce “desired regulatory outcomes” rather than provable facts. Several key points in the report may be addressed by the newly elected Congress:
* “Risks may or may not actually exist. Most environmental risks are so small or indistinguishable that their existence cannot be proven.”
* “Science policy” decisions often contain few scientific facts but many policy assumptions designed to fill “gaps and uncertainties.” Consequently, such policies are “inherently based and can be designed to achieve a predetermined regulatory outcomes.”
* “Policymakers, the media, and the public are unaware of the role of science policy because of a lack of full and fair disclosure.”
Yet, the report concludes, neither Congress, the media, the public nor regulatory agencies, for that matter, can make intelligent decisions about “real” issues (emphasis in the original report) unless they are “fully informed” that “risk assessments for unprovable risks are educated guesses.” At best, “science policy” can only “frame the debate,” but cannot “provide definite answers.” At worst – and in reality – “We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars chasing imagined risks,” as Steve Milloy, author of the study said. “It’s insane.”
The report’s – and Milloy’s observations – aren’t new but are politically significant in providing legitimacy to environmental critics. As The Wall Street Journal editorial pointed out, “with new Kings on the Hill swift action should be taken on this front.” The charges also come at a time when the environmental community has lost much of its legitimacy as documented in “The Conquered Coalition,” an extensive article in The National Journal of Dec. 3, the favorite magazine of Washington’s policy wonks. Environmentalists have overreached themselves “unwittingly” killing bills in the last Congress which would have “strengthened existing environmental laws,” as Peter L. Scher, the outgoing Democratic staff director of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, said: “It is very convenient to say that the environmental bills failed because the Republicans blocked them. But that’s only part of it. The environmental community wouldn’t recognize there are legitimate complaints about the way these laws operate and they won’t go away.”
That doesn’t mean remedies for these complaints will come easily in the next Congress. “The Republican majority should be careful about the language of cost-benefit bills,” The Wall Street Journal cautioned. “As Choices points out, many risk-analysis ideas have already been implemented via executive order – to no effect. What is needed is legislation with teeth-setting out clearly what standards bureaucrats should follow, and give companies and regulators the right to sure if regulators get out of line.”
Something even more basic is being considered by scientists who are considering an “environmental sanity appeal” to Congress. They want Congressional oversight hearings, through which the public watching C-SPAN and CNN, can learn, in detail, how much they have been deceived by regulators pretending risk projections were “facts,” when, in reality, they were only “hypotheses.”
For example, as detailed in Choices, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out EPA’s proposed ban on asbestos because the agency failed to take into account lives that could be lost if less effective substitutes were used in automobile brake linings. “Failure to seek public comment on such an important part of the EPA’s analysis deprived its rule of the substantial evidence required to survive judicial scrutiny,” the court ruled.
In another instance, EPA ignored its own policy assumptions in deciding animal tests of unleaded gasoline causing cancer in rats didn’t mean it also caused cancer in humans. The agency’s incentive was “the need to preserve credibility” after “more than twenty years promoting the use of unleaded gasoline to reduce both air pollution and ambient lead concentrations.”
Similarly, other evidence of carcinogenicity in rats was discounted by EPA in deciding not to ban fluoride in drinking water. EPA’s “motivation,” in this instance, was avoiding “critical damage to the Public Health Service which has aggressively promoted fluoridation for fifty years” to prevent tooth decay, again according to Choices.
Such constraints didn’t bother the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) when it calculated 144 to 722 cancer deaths could be avoided annually by a complete ban on smoking in the workplace, as well as 69,000 headaches and 165,000 “Upper respiratory symptoms.” OSHA cited fourteen out of 31 studies in an earlier EPA analysis as providing “positive” proof of the cancer projections. Yet, “only one of the fourteen studies characterized by OSHA as statistically positive is both statistically significant and well conducted according to EPA,” Choices pointed out. As for the precise figures for headaches and “upper respiratory symptoms,” they were based on a single unpublished analysis by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The analysis consisted of “two hand completed tables with no descriptive prose.”
“Better risk analysis by well-trained people as proposed by Choices isn’t going to change this situation,” one of the organizers of the “Environmental Sanity Appeal” told Speak Up America, “Their process has be stopped before it starts by fact-finding to determine whether there’s a problem in the first place. We need diagnosis before prescription; otherwise we’re using penicillin to cure the sniffles. Right now, the regulatory agencies are prosecutors calling for the death penalty in a murder case when no one has produced a body – and the judges and juries too. We need the equivalent of a medical examiner’s hearing or a grand jury proceeding first. That’s what oversight hearings, televised by C-SPAN and CNN, would convince the public is needed. But the public have to be educated, first; trying to ram a new environmental health policy through Congress without public support would play into the environmentalists’ hands.”
The environmental movement’s political influence is at its ‘nadir’ in Congress, according to Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind), the outgoing chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power. But the movement is rethinking its strategies, and trying to “regain the trust of the American people,” according to The National Journal. Since 1990, Greenpeace has lost 40 percent of its members; Wilderness Society membership has fallen off 35%; and the Sierra Club has slashed its 1995 budget by $4 million and fired 40 people.
In counter-attacking, the environmentalists are “calling attention to several of the more radical Republican proposals,” according to The National Journal, which are “particularly unpopular with the American public.” They include the sell-off of public lands, a drastic rewrite of Endangered Species Act and the wetlands provisions of the Clean Water Act of 1992. “They are also launching a massive public relations effort to educate the American public about the GOP’s property-rights campaign,” The National Journal said.
A particular target is a property rights bill by Sen. Phil Gramm (R.-TX.) which, the environmentalists argue, would “force the government to compensate corporations for installing pollution control equipment.” “Whether they can make that argument persuasive is debatable,” the “Environmental Sanity Appeal” organizer told Speak Up America. “One thing is certain, though. Once oversight hearings are held, the green curtain will be torn down and ‘practitioners of public interest science’ will be seen as modern Wizards of Oz, little men with loud megaphones spreading big lies.” §
Michael J Bennett, was the author of The Asbestos Racket. An Environmental Parable, has exposed environmental lies for more than 15 years.