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tion that makes a strong start toward achieving what the people want done.
This has been the Congress' response to the ecological imperative. If it is to succeed, and achieve a livable environment, the Congress must now find the means to require that the executive branch meet the democratic imperative—to carry out the intentions of the Congress and of the people whom both the Congress and the Executive serve. Thank you. (The full prepared statement of Mr. Commoner follows:)
PREPARED STATEMENT OF BARRY COMMONER, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE BIOLOGY
OF NATURAL SYSTEMS, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, ST. LOUIS, Mo. It is a privilege to appear before this Committee, for the issue which you have chosen to confront is grave and momentous-not only for the survival of the nation as a democratic society but also for its survival in an environment fit for human life.
Responding to a newly-awakened ecological conscience the nation has begun a fateful effort to improve the environment before it degrades to the point of no return. In my opinion-given the present trend of Administration policy on the environment-unless steps are taken by Congress to require that the Executive authorize the programs and expenditures enacted by Congress for environmental improvement, we are likely, during the next few years, to lose enough ground to imperil the outcome of our race for survival.
It is fitting that the nation's concern with environmental quality-as expressed, for example, in the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972-should become a major issue in the growing confrontation between the intentions of the Congress and the actions of the Executive. Congress is, of course, the branch of government which by design is most sensitive to the public conscience; and the demand for environmental quality is one that clearly arises out of that conscience.
Surprise is often expressed over the unexpected emergence of intense public concern for environmental quality in the last few years. Why has the nation become aware, suddenly, and hopefully not too late, that we have literally been destroying the foundation of our lives and our livelihood—the environment? I believe that the explanation has a good deal to do with the general issue before this committee. What has placed the issue of environmental quality high on the nation's agenda is neither the initiative of the President nor of the Congress. Rather, the initiative has come from the people; environmental quality is a truly grass-roots issue. It arose everywhere in the nation over the last decade; in the minds of the citizens, as they learned from the scientific community about the long list of environmental blunders; and in their hearts, as they realized that the world that we are destroying is our legacy to our children. All the evidence I know shows that environmental concern originates not in any institution of government, not in the news media, but primarily in the people themselves: the spontaneous outburst of Earth Day 1970, and its subsequent quieter, but deeper, celebrations every year since then; the citizens groups that have sprung up in most communities to defend the environment, and the realistic expression of their concern in the form of new bond issues for pollution control; the excitement which is now felt in so many schools and colleges as students learn how to study and solve environmental problems; the bewilderment in the eyes of children when they discover that the world into which they have been born is heading toward destruction.
The very nature of the environmental crisis helps to explain why it has become such a strongly felt grass-roots issue. We now know that environmental degradation is neither an act of God, nor a whim of Nature, but the unanticipated effect of modern productive technologies on the environment which supports them. Inevitably, then, judgement of an environmental issue requires that a balance be struck between the obvious benefits of a new technological innovation (for example, the modern high-powered, high-compression, automobile engine) and its hazard to the environment and human health (in this case, sickness due to photochemical smog, which result from the same engine feature-highcompression—that yields its benefits). Although the benefits of a high-compression engine can be computed by engineers and economists and the hazards of the smog which it produces can be assessed by physicians and scientists the balance between benefit and hazard is not a matter of science or scholarship. Science can certainly tell us that, for the benefit of driving high-powered cars, we must pay the price of a certain number of otherwise unnecessary deaths from emphysema or lung cancer. But no scientific principle can tell us whether that price is too high to pay, for that is a moral judgement, a matter of conscience. Thus, despite their apparent scientific and technical content, what we actually do about environmental issues is, in the end, a matter of public morality; but it is a moral judgement which, given its scientific content, must be informed.
One of the most heartening aspects of the environmental crisis has been the public response to this challenge. Millions of people have mastered the new environmental alphabet : Sr 90; I 131 ; DDT; PCB; 2,4,5, T ; SST and all the rest; and they have brought this knowledge to bear on the legislative process, pressing hard for action to roll back the mounting tide of pollution. This is one reason why those of us who have been privileged to participate in this process have found the experience so rewarding. It has been a welcome confirmationin these days of manipulative politics--of the validity of the assumption on which the nation was founded, and its government designed that its people are capable of deciding what qualities of life they deem to be good and of determining how to achieve them. The campaign for environmental quality is a healthy reminder that the fundamental source of democracy is the will of the people to govern themselves.
Given that the people of the U'.S. have themselves discovered the urgency of the environmental crisis, and in themselves generated the will to survive it, the next step in the democratic process is, of course, the legislative response. How well has the Congress responded to the people's urgent desire for environmental improvement? Has it created the legislative instruments and appropriated the funds needed to put into practice what the people want done?
In my opinion, Congressional response to the environmental crisis has been remarkable in its vigor and effectiveness. Environmental issues are exceedingly complex, involving as they do many poorly understood, vastly interconnected, natural processes which impinge in complicated ways on basie economic, social and political questions. It seems to me that the Congress has responded to this situation remarkably well. Most of the Congressional hearings on these issues have been thorough and comprehensive; in my experience, they are often valuable sources of environmental data and analysis. And I believe that the quality of hearings on environmental matters has usually been well matched by the quality of the resultant legislation. There is no need to recount here the list of landmark environmental legislation enacted by Congress in the last few years, except to note that in only a short time it has given the country a legislative base from which to attack most of the immediate pollution problems that afflict us. Particularly remarkable, in my opinion, has been the truly creative approach embodied in some of these environmental bills.
Let me single out one seemingly routine section of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 which, almost by itself, has revolutionized the approach of the federal government to environmental problems.
For many years, those of us who have tried to understand how human actions affect the environment, and to share that knowledge with our fellow citizens have been frustrated by a lack of information not only about private industry, but even about federal, public-supported activities. In the 1950's, we had to struggle against the secrecy of the military and the AEC's airy dismissal of environmental issues in order to discover the most elementary facts about the kinds and amounts of radioactive hazards produced by nuclear bombs and reactors. In the 1960's, government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, the Interior Department and the Corps of Engineers, launched vast programsefforts to eradicate" certain insects; to dam, straighten and otherwise disrupt the free flow of the nation's rivers; to drill for oil wherever it could be foundwith powerful impacts on the environment, yet failing to consider what that impact might be and how much of a project's apparent value might be counterbalanced by its environmental costs. More recently, we have had the examples of the SST, the Alaska pipeline, and the breeder reactor-all of them costly, complex, federally-funded programs which were conceived and promoted by the Executive branch long before anyone could answer the question: "How will it affect the environment?” Environmentalists and citizens' groups, undaunted by the agencies' lack of concern with environmental consequences, raised the issues and sought out the relevant facts as best they could. This was no easy task. for the essential environmental facts were usually locked in administrative files.
Nevertheless, bit by bit, the scientific community unearthed the facts about fallout, insecticides, herbicidal warfare in Viet Nam, detergents, the sonic boom, the oil spills and all the rest. How much easier it would have been, and how much sooner the people of the country could have the facts against which to test their new-found environmental conscience, if those who possessed them, the government agencies, had produced the data voluntarily.
Then in a few quiet, at first unappreciated, paragraphs the National Environmental Policy Act changed all that, overnight. Because of Section 102C of that Act, every federal agency is required, in advance, to produce an Environmental Impact Statement, describing in detail the nature of a proposed project, the best available estimate of its impact on the environment, alternatives to the proposed action, and any “irreversible or irretrievable commitments of resources which would be involved in the proposed action should it be implemented.”
This single legislative requirement has, in my opinion, done more to save the environment from thoughtless destruction than any other government action. An environmental issue can usually be ignored or wrongly met only when it is enshrouded in ignorance. Often it is enough to describe, without judgment, the environmental impact of a proposed project to have its benefits shrink in comparison, so that the necessary judgment becomes self-evident to most people. This is what sealed the fate of the SST, I believe.
It is als significant that most recent legislation has not only recognized environmental problems, but has accurately reflected the size and the cost of doing something useful about them. A few years ago little support could be found for the enactment of an $11 billion expenditure for water pollution controls. However, by 1972, the need had been so forcibly demonstrated that such a bill could not only be passed, but enacted over the President's veto. This is another example of how effectively new environmental legislation has helped the nation confront the environmental crisis. To be sure, much remains to be enacted, let alone funded and achieved, but I am convinced that, in the area of the environment, the second step in the democratic process, Congressional response to the public will, in the form of carefully designed legislative instruments to achieve what the public wants, has been very well begun.
We come now to the third step in the classical progression of the democratic process: The administration of the policies established by the Congress in response to the public's expressed desire for environmental improvement. This is, of course, the responsibility of the Executive branch of government. It is here that we begin to discover why-despite a powerfully expressed public will to resolve the environmental crisis, and an effective legislative response, the air still reeks, the waters are still foul, and children continue to die of lead poisoning. The will of the people and the actions and intentions of Congress to improve the environment have been frustrated by the failure of the Executive branch to carry out its part of the Constitutional contract.
The now historical instance of the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 is the prime example of this failure. And, once more, the very nature of the environmental issue casts a bright light on the issue before this Committee. Given the nature of the water pollution problem, I believe that by the single act of reducing expenditures in the next two years from the $11.5 billion appropriated by Congress to $5.5 billion, the President has substantially interfered with the execution of the Congress' intention to restore the quality of surface water.
In cutting the funds for water pollution control, the President-perhaps unwittingly-has set off a chain of events that will multiply the harm that this action will do to the cause of environmental improvement, far beyond the measure of the fiscal reduction itself.
Consider, for example, the effect of this fiscal cut on the ecological fate of Lake Erie. In Section 108(d), the Act calls for the development of a program "for the rehabilitation and environmental repair of Lake Erie.” What will be the consequence of failing to carry out this program?
It might be useful here to take note of a few relevant technical facts: The Act calls for the construction of waste treatment facilities adequate to maintain or restore water quality. Secondary waste treatment facilities accomplish the conversion of the organic matter of raw sewage and similar wastes to inorganic constituents—such as carbon dioxide, phosphate and nitrate. This sharply reduces the oxygen-consuming capacity of the waste effiuent, so that it can be released to surface waters without depleting the oxygen which is essential to the purity of natural aquatic systems. However, the release of the ef. fluent from secondary treatment may itself harm water quality wherever the
nutrients (e.g., nitrate and phosphate) in it can cause algal overgrowths, which on their death pollute the water. The most striking example of this situation is Lake Erie. Here it becomes essential, therefore if water quality is to be restored--that advanced waste treatment be instituted to remove the nutrients present in the secondary effluent before it reaches surface waters.
Let us now consider the ultimate effect of the Presidential impoundment of funds on Congress' intention to meet the need for advanced waste treatment in areas such as Lake Erie. One might imagine that the resulting delay in constructing advanced treatment facilities for the wastes entering Lake Erie would only delay for a time the improvement of water quality in the lake. In actual fact, the effect will be far worse; it may, in my opinion, lead to a drastic worsening of the already bad situation in Lake Erie,
Let me explain. As a result of inadequate waste treatment in the cities around it, Lake Erie has become a kind of huge under-water cess-pool. From a century of sewage and other wastes, there has accumulated in the bottom mud a vast store of plant nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphate), which, if released into the waters of the lake could set off an overwhelming growth of algae. As this huge overgrowth decayed, it could use up most of the oxygen in the lake and kill off vast quantities of fish and other forms of life. What has thus far prevented this catastrophe has been a thin layer, lying on the lake's bed of mud, of iron oxide in a form (ferric iron) which is highly insoluble and which, therefore, effectively seals off the mud and prevents its nutrients from entering the overlying water. Unfortunately, however, this same iron oxide film can be readily converted into a very soluble form (ferrous iron) —which is incapable of sealing off the mud—when the oxygen content of the water above the mud falls to zero for a long enough period of time. Because Lake Erie is already polluted, most of the bottom water begins to lose oxygen as each summer season starts and the resultant temperature gradients cut down the movement of oxygen from the lake's surface. As a result, in most areas of the lake, the bottom now reaches zero oxygen some weeks after the start of each summer season. But, since the water is always reoxygenated by the fall period of intense recirculation, the duration of this zero-oxygen period has thus far been too short to convert the iron oxide film to the soluble, non-protective form. Nevertheless, the situation is worsening year by year and new data show that the duration of the zero-oxygen period in the lake bottom has been lengthening rapidly in recent years. These data suggest that in the next decade, the bottom water may reach the point at which it remains in the zero-oxygen condition essentially all summer long-creating, in my opinion, the distinct possibility that the iron oxide film will break down and trigger a catastrophic loss of oxygen in large masses of the lake. This impending disaster can only be avoided by the timely installation of advanced waste treatment facilities, as proposed in the Act.
Thus, unless the President's impoundment of waste treatment facility funds is reversed, and construction of needed advanced treatment plants in the Lake Erie region is begun now, the race against the growing peril of zero-oxygen in the lake bottom may be lost. If this happens, Lake Erie, and its huge underwater cess-pool, will be threatened with what might be called, to quote one of my young colleagues, the biggest sewer back-up in history.
There are other ways in which the impoundment of waste treatment funds by the President is bound to do far more harm to the environment than to reduce hy more than half the possible improvements in water quality that could be achieved in the coming years. None of the treatment plants, whether advanced or secondary, that the Act is supposed to fund can be half-built. Inevitably, the President's cuts, if allowed to stand, will mean that in many places where secondary treatment facilities are needed, no action can be taken to improve water quality. And since in most places water quality is still declining, as the municipal industrial and agricultural wastes poured into them increase year by year, the President's action condemns these communities to a declining water quality.
It is also important to recognize that this action is not easily reversed. If by some economic sleight of hand it should be decided by the Administration, a year or two from now, that the danger of inflation is past (or perhaps that an election is near) and that the cuts in water treatment funds should be restored, we will have lost, in environmental quality, much more than the continued degradation of the intervening years. Recall that waste treatment plants are large. complex installations; and the financial arrangements (matching of federal grants by local bond issues, and the like) are equally involved. There is no guarantee, for example, that local funds now available for such construction will still be there when the President decides that the funding which the Congress has enacted ought to at least be spent. Nor will it be possible at that time, to simply dust off the old blueprints and start building the delayed facility. In many cases, during the intervening years, the pollution problem will have worsened and the kinds of pollutants become so different as to require new designs-again introducing delay, if and when funds are made available.
Apart from these considerations, there are other reasons for apprehension over the trend of the Executive branch to over-ride legislative action in the area of the environment. I have already discussed the enormous importance of the Environmental Impact Statements required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 for the effort toward environmental improvement. Regrettably, the Administration has seen fit to propose legislation that would exempt the Atomic Energy Commission—which oversees installations that are potentially the most hazardous in the world-from this provision of NEPA. And it is regrettable, too, that it required court action to bring AEC impact statements on conventional nuclear reactors up to acceptable standards, and that it has been necessary to institute another suit to force the AEC to produce an impact statement on the whole breeder reactor program. Again, these are instances in which the Executive branch has attempted to thwart the Congress' intention in a matter of crucial importance for environmental improvement.
While I have, naturally, concerned myself here exclusively with the ways in which the Executive branch has over-ridden legislative intentions in the area of the environment, I am obliged to point out that Presidential actions in areas seemingly remote from environmental issues can have an untoward effect on their resolution. Consider, for example, one of our most serious and still tragically neglected environmental problems-poisoning of children from ingestion of chips of lead-bearing paint. About 2.5 million children are at risk from this environmental hazard ; trial tests indicated that over 600,000 of these children have elevated levels of lead in their blood and that probably some 100,000 of them suffer clinical lead poisoning. In terms of immediate human suffering, this: may be our most costly environmental problem, for, if he survives, a lead-poisoned child is very likely to suffer permanent brain damage and to become mentally retarded.
Direct attention to this problem is very inadequate, and the meager funds available to solve it are now held up by the Administration's failure to approve the HEW appropriation bill. But what adds immeasurably to the tragic inadequacy of our attention to this problem is the recent action by the President to exclude funds for housing from the new budget. For the lead poisoning problem is, in truth, a housing problem : What causes the environmental hazard is the general deterioration of buildings. When plumbing fails and walls become water soaked, the plaster crumbles and paint flakes fall to the fioor where they can be eaten by a baby. It is useless to remove the offending paint in such a building unless it is repaired-and this becomes increasingly impossible in decayed urban areas as federal funds for housing are cut off.
We should take note, as well, of a basic relationship between poverty and environmental pollution : that it is usually the poor that suffer worst from the effects of environmental degradation. One reason is that poor people live close to pollutant-emitting factories, smog-generating highways, and the noisiest and dustiest parts of the city ; they, therefore, bear the brunt of the assault of pollution on health. Another reason is that when the added cost of pollution control is “passed along to the consumer," it is the poor that suffer most. After all, adding a $300 pollution control device (and the expensive upkeep which it involves) to the cost of a car will not very much deter the purchase of a $5000 vehicle; but it may well make it impossible for a poor person who in the absence of mass transit needs a car in order to go to work—to purchase a $2,000 vehicle.
For these reasons, I must regard the shocking reductions in the funds available for housing, welfare and other needs of the poor, which the President proposes in his new budget, as an assault--indirect, but nevertheless powerful-on the Congress' often-expressed intention, in recent legislation, to respond effffectively to the people's demand for environmental improvement.
It has been my purpose in these remarks to consider the effects of recent actions by the President on the capability of recent environmental legislation to accomplish the purposes which the Congress intended in enacting it. There is strong