Enforcement Problems

As was noted above, the protection of human health from environmental contamination in the United States is largely the responsibility of the EPA and other federal and state agencies. Unfortunately, the performance of those agencies is sometimes disappointing. The EPA's regulation of pesticides exemplifies the general problem. The EPA regulates pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The general public is exposed to pesticides primarily through residues in food and contamination of the groundwater that serves as a major source of drinking water. The EPA recognized in 1988 that "forty-six pesticides ... contaminate groundwater solely as a result of normal agricultural use" (Fultz, p. 3). However, a registered chemical can remain in use for up to fifteen years after it is discovered in groundwater before a decision is made about its continued use. An example is atrazine, a pesticide that is in widespread agricultural use (Fultz). For pesticides that already have been found to be toxic, the EPA has not lowered acceptable exposure through residues in food in light of additional exposure through drinking water.

Not all pesticides in widespread use are registered with the EPA, resulting in the continued exposure of the public through food and water to pesticides that have not been tested for their "potential to cause birth defects, cancer, and other chronic health effects" (Fultz, p. 5). Exemption from the registration requirement is given in so-called emergencies for one year at a time, but some exemptions have been granted for more than a decade, during which time people have been exposed to pesticides of unknown toxicity (Guerrero, 1991b). Also, the EPA continues to emphasize the control of point sources of water pollution such as factories and municipal sewer systems instead of nonpoint sources such as agricultural runoff despite evidence that nonpoint sources pose a greater water pollution problem (Guerrero, 1991b). This may be due to the fact that the USDA promotes the use of many pesticides to increase crop yields even though those chemicals constitute health hazards.

Unfortunately, the EPA's inadequate protection of public health from the dangers of pesticides is typical. Similar stories can be told about surface-water pollution, hazardous waste management and cleanup, enforcement of the Clean Air Act, and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) decisions about the disposal of nuclear waste: "The National Research Council estimated that only 2 percent of at least 60,000 chemicals that are used widely have been comprehensively studied for toxic effects" (Ziem and Davidoff, p. 88).

In addition to poor funding, a general reason for inadequate protection is that agencies tend to establish such close ties to the industries they are charged with regulating that they identify with industry perspectives and needs. An agency's capture by industry results partly from industry offers of future high-paying employment to regulatory personnel who are "reasonable." Another factor may be pressure on an agency by the legislators who are responsible for approving its budget. Those legislators may depend on the regulated industry for campaign contributions (Sanjour).

Conscientious federal employees who try to regulate effectively are relegated to tasks that have little impact. Employees who blow the whistle on an agency's failure to do its job must go before the presidentially appointed Merit System Protection Board, which may be more interested in protecting the president and "the system" than in protecting the whistle-blower (Sanjour).

There is also the appearance of racism in the EPA's enforcement efforts: "Penalties under hazardous waste laws at sites having the greatest white population were about 500 percent higher than penalties at sites with the greatest minority population" (Lavelle, p. S2). This disparity can be accounted for only by race, not by income. There is a similar disparity of 46 percent in penalties concerning nontoxic waste, air pollution, and water pollution. It takes 20 percent longer for toxic waste sites in minority areas to be placed on the priority list for cleanup, and the cleanup in minority areas is more likely than that in white areas to consist only of containment of the waste rather than treatment that removes its toxicity.

Environmental racism also appears to affect government regulation of international trade. For example, pesticides banned in the United States because of their toxicity to human beings can be manufactured and then sold abroad. Some return as residues on imported food.

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