Environmental Protection at ‘Crossroads': EPA Science Chief

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Anthony Adragna

April 11 — The U.S. has reached a “crossroads” in environmental protection that will challenge state and federal regulators to change their decision-making process to respond more quickly to evolving threats, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top science adviser said April 11.

Key to that evolving approach will be recognizing once again that maximizing public health is one of the top objectives driving environmental protection, Thomas Burke, deputy assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development, told the Environmental Council of the States' spring meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

“For many years, people were really not understanding how carbon emissions related to them, related to the health of their communities,” Burke said. “We must make permanent changes by how we approach things in the assessment of risks.”

New Memorandum Signed

Burke's comments came as the EPA, ECOS and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials signed a memorandum of agreement to work more closely on initiatives that reinforce the connections between environmental protection and human health.

“This agreement is a perfect symbol of an effort to reintegrate those concerns,” Acting Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg said in signing the agreement.

Specifically, the groups agreed to “develop tools, reports, workshops, meetings and other tangible outcomes” to promote the connection between public health and environmental protection. They will identify short- and long-term steps to further the agreement within four months.

During his second term, President Barack Obama's administration has forcefully framed its case for several high-profile regulations—notably the Clean Power Plan and revised ozone standards—in terms of their importance for public health.

The memorandum also comes the week after an administration report found significant, costly and negative public health impacts are already occurring due to the impacts of climate change .

Less Reliance on Rulemakings?

Regulators must become comfortable sharing information more promptly and communicating it more clearly to the public, Burke said.

“We—the scientists at EPA, the scientists of academia and all of us—are being asked to answer questions faster than ever before with limited information,” Burke said. “How do we put that information out there when it’s probably not ready for regulation, it’s probably not ready to be the law of the land, but it’s really important for public health for people to know that?”

“We’re going to have to get a little bit more comfortable with decision-making in a way that we haven’t done it before,” Burke said.

Public Engagement Key

Properly soliciting input from the public about the scope of various environmental problems before jumping immediately to regulate is key, Burke said.

“I don’t think people demand perfection or absolute answers,” Burke said. “In fact, what I’m seeing more and more is that they reject those standards and those numbers. They want to understand how the decision was made.”

As part of the broader “culture shift,” Burke said the EPA intends to hire more employees with backgrounds in public health and epidemiology to complement its workforce.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Nashville, Tenn., at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the memorandum of agreement signed between EPA, ECOS and ASTHO is available at http://bit.ly/1SbQuaP.