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The point I would like to make is: 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 qualityas 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. 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 grassroots issue. It arose everywhere in the Nation over the last decade; in the minds of the citizens, as they learned from the scientific community 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.
One point I want to make about the public experience here is that in the past that has been very difficult to get the kind of information the public needs from the Government, and to have it in a form that the public can respond to, and those of us who have been privileged to participate in public information on this have found it a very rewarding experience, particularly in these days of manipulative politics, because it seems to me a test of validity on the assumption on which the Nation was founded; that is, that its people are capable of deciding what qualities of life they deem to be good and of determining how to achieve them. In other words, the campaign for environmental quality I think is a healthy reminder that the fundamental source of democracy is the will of the people to govern themselves. This is a somewhat old fashioned idea and the chief point I want to make is that those of us who have been participating in the environmental campaign have had a healthy reminder that this old fashioned idea is something that really means something to people today.
Now, I have gone through all this for the obvious reason that the people of the United States have themselves discerned the urgency of the environmental crisis and in themselves generated the will to survival. The next step is, of course, the legislative response and after that the intention of the executive to carry out the will of the legislature. I want to take up those two steps now.
Senator CHILES. Doctor, I wonder, if for the sake of time we would put your entire statement in the record. If you could brief it for usI know Senator Muskie might want to ask you some questions and we are going to be under some real time restraint.
Mr. COMMONER. I am trying to do that, I will do some more.
Mr. COMMONER. I just want to express the opinion that I think the congressional response to the crisis has been remarkable, both in its vigor and effectiveness. These are complex issues. They touch on many technical, social, and economic policies and some of the hearings I know have dealt with these very well. Many of us use the hearings as a source of scientific data and analysis. There is no list for me to go through the list of landmark legislation the Congress has passed. I think it is clear the Congress has done its job.
I want to mention one creative piece of legislation which I think is particularly important, and that is the section of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which requires that environmental impact statements be filed. In my opinion this is probably the single most important step toward improving the environment, because it forces the facts out in the open where the scientific community and the public can get at them. There have been a series of examples in which before that act was passed it was necessary to wrench information out of the Atomic Energy Commission and other agencies in order to get the facts about environmental degradation before the public.
Let me turn to the third step. What I have said so far is that the environmental issue arises clearly in the public conscience, that the next step, the response of the legislature to it has, I think, by and large been very good. We now come to the third step in the classical progression of the democratic process, and that is the administration of the policies established by Congress in response to the public's express desire for environmental improvement. This is, of course, the responsibility of the executive branch of Government.
Now, it is here that we begin to discover why, despite all the optimistic things I have said, that the public is aroused and Congress has acted that despite that the air still reeks, the waters are still foul and children continue to die of lead poisoning. The will of the people and actions and intentions of Congress to improve the environment have in my opinion been frustrated by the failure of the executive branch to carry out its part of the constitutional contract.
Now, the historical example, historical by now, I think, of the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 is, of course, the prime example of the failure on the part of the executive. What I would like to do is demonstrate why the very environmental problem that that act was supposed to have solved makes it clear that any delay in solving it is not merely a delay in improving the environment but an act which will encourage the degradation of the environment.
I want to take as an example the situation in Lake Erie. Section 108(d) of the Water Pollution Control Act calls for a program for the rehabilitation and environmental repair of Lake Erie and the question I want to ask is: What will be the consequence of failing to carry out that program?
Let me remind you about some technical facts here. The way we handle our water pollution problems is to set up secondary, primary treatment, get rid of solvents, secondary treatment is to break down the organic matter converting it to inorganic material, and this is usually then released to the water. But sometimes, as in Lake Erie, the release of these nutrients cause huge outgrowths and when they die they will pollute the water.
So if the act is to be carried out around Lake Erie, advanced facilities will have to be built to recapture the nutrients.
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 underwater cesspool. 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, nonprotective 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 cesspool, will be threatened with what might be called, to quote one of my young colleagues, the biggest sewer backup in history. I think that might have to be laid on the door of the Executive.
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 by 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 last 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 override 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 overridden 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.
Finally, I want to make a point about the new budget. The new budget that has been proposed I think will also frustrate the environmental improvement. Some people have been confused by the fact that the new budget has a fair amount of money for environmental purposes. The point I want to make is the breakdown for health and welfare services, particularly for the poor is also an attack on environmental quality, because there is a basic relationship between poverty and pollution. It is usually the poor that suffer the most from environmental degradation. One reason is they live close to pollution emitting factories, smog generating highways, and the smoggiest and dustiest parts of the city. 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 it involves to the cost of a car will not very much deter the purchaser of a $5,000 vehicle but it may make the difference to someone buying a $2,000 vehicle between buying a car and not buying a car.
For these reasons I have to 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 an assault-indirect, but nevertheless powerful-on the Congress' often expressed intention in recent legislation to respond effectively 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 evidence, I believe, to conclude that the Congress' intent, in enacting this legislation, has been seriously thwarted by the executive branch.
It can be argued, of course, that no action of the President or of an executive department is irreversible, and that at most, these actions delay rather than block the execution of congressional intentions. However, in the environmental area, such an argument loses its force, for it is now widely appreciated that ecological degradation, driven far enough, reaches a point of no return. Hence, a delay may make the difference between the survival of an ecological system, or its irrevocable death. Indeed, this has been made quite clear by the President himself.
In his first state of the Union message the President declared that:
The 1970's absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.
In contrast to these earlier words, by his recent actions the President tells us that what the people and the Congress want now, he will give them later—which, according to the imperatives of ecology and his own testimony, means never.
The people of this country, having sensed that we are on a blind march toward ecological catastrophe have given Congress a forceful mandate for survival. In response, the Congress has enacted legisla