EPA experiments with flexible approach

EPA experiments with flexible approach

Early this year, as congressional conservatives made headlines accusing the Clinton administration of over-regulating industry by trying to curb global warming, Weyerhaeuser Co. quietly celebrated its first year in an innovative new regulatory program initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the EPA's "Project XL," Weyerhaeuser voluntarily reduced the pollution produced by its pulp mill in Oglethorpe, Ga. In return, the EPA granted the company leeway to comply with federal environmental laws. Weyerhaeuser is one of several companies that have negotiated such agreements, which allow the firms to quickly change their production processes without enduring mountains of red tape.

Project XL is part of an agency effort to squeeze more environmental protection out of the existing laws. Regulators grant states and companies more control as long as they continue to meet federal environmental standards. "These are the approaches that will help the EPA be ready for the 21st century," EPA deputy administrator Fred Hansen said.

Hansen, who has helped nurture the EPA's new agreements with industry and the states, is thinking about legacies these days. He is scheduled to leave the agency in early October, after serving four years in the EPA's No. 2 spot--in effect, acting as chief operating officer.

Because Republican leaders are now reluctant to openly take on environmental issues or roll back regulations, industry officials are turning to the EPA for help. Some of the agency's attempts to negotiate new agreements have fallen flat, as the EPA was caught between states and businesses that want regulatory relief, and environmentalists who condemn attempts to ease federal protections. "Regulatory flexibility is hard to define," Hansen said. "What one party sees as a regulatory obstacle that should be removed, another perceives as a fundamental protection."

But over time, the EPA has begun to loosen the iron fist of environmental regulations and penalties and move toward more incentive-based controls.

One example: requiring public disclosure. Rather than ban or control many toxic chemicals, the EPA has increased the number of substances that fall under its community "right-to-know" provisions. Companies that emit chemicals on that list must annually publicize their pollution levels.

In July, Vice President Al Gore announced plans to expand the approach to supplies of drinking water. Under that plan, customers' water bills would include lists of local chemical contaminants.

But the EPA's expansive interpretation of its authority has gotten agency officials into hot water on Capitol Hill. Republicans have accused the EPA of illegally expanding air pollution controls to implement the Kyoto global-warming treaty, which has not yet been submitted to the Senate. Hansen denies that the EPA is trying to prematurely fulfill the treaty. "The idea that we're somehow doing backdoor implementation is ridiculous," he said.

But with Congress and the administration at loggerheads over how to update the nation's major environmental laws, Hansen said regulators are increasingly tapping into a wealth of potential flexibility in the existing statutes. "The law really does have a much broader set of authorities," he said. "We want to utilize those authorities to make good, commonsense environmental regulations. You ought to apply the existing law very broadly, if it makes sense, rather than trying to seek changes to the law."