EPA celebrated its 20th birthday this week. It was a dismal affair.
Do you remember back when you got into your first environmental fight
and you first learned of the existence of EPA (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency)? "Thank the Lord," you probably said, "I've finally
located a government agency that's on my side; they'll put these
polluters in jail--that's their job, that's what they're paid to do."
Then you got deeper into the issues and you found that EPA officials
are indifferent or even antagonistic. You found that you yourself,
rather than the polluters, are viewed by EPA as the enemy and that the
hazardous waste dumpers and EPA and state officials work closely
together while you, the public, are the outsiders.
You found that you have to spend your own time, and hire outside
experts with your own money, to gather data while EPA sits on the same
data, gathered at public expense.
You ask, why should people paid by the public to protect the
environment not do so? The answer isn't simple--but now, finally, an
EPA official has written down on paper "Why the EPA Is Like It Is."
William Sanjour--a 20-year employee of the EPA and a well-known friend
of grass-roots environmentalists--has laid it out in just 13 pages.
Your heart will sing when you read this little jewel.
"To understand why the EPA is the way it is," says Sanjour, "you must
start at the top, at the White House." The President has four or five
top priority programs (defense, the budget and so forth); these are
programs he cares about and from which he wants real results. Then he
has a private, personal agenda--keeping himself out of the clutches of
the law, getting reelected, and "where will we go after our term of
office is over?"
Then there is all the other business of government, including
transportation, housing, education, environment, and other relatively
unimportant stuff. That's how it is, folks. The President is, after
all, human and he can only focus on a few things.
The President wants real performance from his highpriority programs.
From all the others, he wants peace and quiet. He wants not to be
annoyed or distracted. Thus an EPA administrator should be someone
everyone can more or less agree on. He or she can make tough-talk
speeches, but above all else, he or she must not make waves.
People who work for EPA must not be people who like to get things done.
"People who need to see concrete results for their efforts don't last
long at EPA," says Sanjour. "When it comes to drafting and implementing
rules for environmental protection, getting results means making
enemies of powerful and influential people. The kind of people who get
ahead [within EPA] are those clever ones who can be terribly busy while
they procrastinate, obfuscate, and can consistently come up with
superficially plausible reasons for not accomplishing anything,"
Sanjour says. "Thousands of people have spent hundreds of millions of
dollars over decades with nothing to show for it but their own career
But, you say, what about those instances in which EPA has issued
regulations, has collected millions in fines and has even put a few
polluters into jail? "In most cases," says Sanjour, if you look
carefully, you will find that EPA was forced or coerced into taking
action and rarely ever initiated it."
Sanjour points out that EPA more often than not opposes Congress
passing really tough environmental laws; a whole industry has been
created by such organizations as Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suing EPA to make them do what
the law already requires them to do and for which they are already
being paid; more time and money is spent figuring out how to remove
companies from regulation than is spent getting companies regulated;
fines that EPA collects are usually smaller than the profits polluters
earned by breaking the law in the first place; and most importantly:
most enforcement cases against influential polluters are started by
some combination of environmental organizations, the media and local
Anyone who has to deal with EPA and wants to succeed must know what the
agency's real priorities are, and act accordingly. Each office within
EPA is slightly different, but the Office of Solid Waste (OSW-where
Sanjour has worked for years) provides a good example. Sanjour lists
the groups that have the most influence on OSW, in this order: the
waste management industry, state governments, powerful waste producing
industries (oil, mining, electric utilities, chemicals), important
Congressmen, national environmental groups, and, last, the national
Just because you (grass-roots groups) are not on the list doesn't mean
you can't influence EPA--you just need to know roundabout ways to make
it happen. More on this later.
The major clients of OSW are the companies who make money "managing"
solid and hazardous wastes. This is the industry that has the most to
gain or lose by OSW decisions. The commercial waste business is a
business. Its income is produced by taking wastes through the gate.
Waste is money, the more the better. Expense is incurred by treating
the waste so as to protect the environment. This costs money. A
successful business maximizes income and reduces expenses to the lowest
possible level. The waste "management" business, by its very nature,
must do everything it can to thwart serious attempts to reduce the
amount of waste produced in America and at the same time must take any
shortcuts it can get away with in the treatment of that waste.
"Most people in EPA equate the waste management industry with the
protection of the environment and the industry's opponents and anti-
environment NIMBYs," Sanjour says. "EPA finds it very comfortable to be
allied with a big powerful industry which presents itself as the
protector and defender of the environment."
Waste management has been the growth industry of the '80s and is likely
to continue into the '90s. The industry has grown rich through its
ability to control the governments who are supposed to be controlling
them and it shares the wealth with its benefactors," says Sanjour.
"Bureaucrats learn that crossing the industry can get them into a lot
of trouble, whereas cooperating with them has many rewards including
the hope of lucrative employment. Scores of federal and state employees
have already done so, including several former administrators of EPA.
Many others have gotten high paying jobs in law firms representing the
hazardous waste industry and other companies such as consulting firms
and engineering firms with industry clients," says Sanjour.
Sanjour has formulated a law, which he has named after his former EPA
boss, Gary Dietrich (now a very successful waste management
consultant); "Dietrich's law" is: "No one in EPA ever went to jail, or
lost his job, or suffered any setback in his career for failing to do
what the law required him to do and for which he was being paid." And
the corollary to Dietrich's law is: "Lots of people have ruined their
careers in EPA by trying to do what the law required them to do and for
which they were being paid." Or, as Sanjour's friend within EPA, Hugh
Kaufman, has often said, "No good deed will go unpunished."
To influence EPA, you must develop the power to influence people who
can influence management-level EPA officials. This means organizing at
the local level, then expanding to statewide organizing. "If you
organize and have a block of supporters, or at least give the
impression that you do, then you can influence local elections for
county officials, state legislatures, and U.S. Congressmen. You can
also use your influence on local banks, merchants, or anyone else who
might be tempted to profit from having a hazardous waste facility in
your back yard," Sanjour advises.
"By extending your influence throughout the state, you can affect state
officials and U.S. Senators as well. But in order to do this, you must
make your issue a state issue, otherwise you will just be brushed off
as NIMBYs. Don't just try to shift your issues to some other part of
the state. Emphasize instead: (a) not letting your state become the
dumping ground for the rest of the world; (b) the track record of
environmental abuse and corruption of officials of the waste management
industry; (c) the inevitable cleanup and liability costs to the state;
(d) corporate responsibility for its own waste; (e) if waste facilities
are needed, they should be operated by the state, trade associations,
or other institutions for the purpose of environmental protection, not
"Someone once said all politics is local. If you can win locally, then
EPA will follow," Sanjour concludes.
Get: "Why EPA Is Like It Is," 13 pgs., dated November 17, 1990, from:
William Sanjour, EPA Mail Code WH-562B, 401 M Street, SW, Washington,
DC 20460; phone (202) 382-4502.
Descriptor terms: epa; william sanjour; waste disposal industry; epa
office of solid waste;