I am about to embark on what can be a gut-wrenching, relationship-straining, roller coaster ride of an experience. My wife and I are building a house. We have been through this before and came out fine. We learned a very valuable lesson the first time around. The secret is to have a good general contractor and skillful subcontractors.
Twenty years ago, we chose a general contractor based on experience and qualifications. We made our selection and then lived by some very simple ground rules. Our job was to provide a vision of what the house was to look like and provide the resources to get the job done. The general contractor would build the house by hiring skilled subcontractors to carry out day-to-day tasks. We knew that the general contractor was there for overall guidance and quality assurance but the subcontractors would put hammer to nail. We relied on the general contractor to make sure its subcontractors were skilled and would not require the general contractor to redo work or duplicate the subcontractor’s efforts. Although there were some hitches along the way, it worked out well and we loved our new home. We have now moved to a different city and plan to use this approach again.
The delivery of environmental services, I think, was meant to follow this general contractor model. Congress passed major environmental laws in the early 1970’s. The concept was for a newly created federal agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the general contractor. The house to be built was the structure of environmental protection for the United States. Congress authorized a budget to build out the blueprints as set out in our environmental statutes and a grand new experiment was launched.
In order to carry out the bulk of the work, the statutes empowered EPA to engage its subcontractors – the states, local governments and tribes. What an amazing idea. The EPA would provide the vision, carry out the science, and provide resources for the front line work of state and local governments and the tribes. It was obvious, I suppose, that the job was too big for a federal agency. And it was also obvious that for something as personal as environmental protection, we needed local delivery of service.
This plan worked well for a number of years as the states and EPA cooperated to set up and administer environmental programs in air quality, water quality, and waste management. The federal and state relationship developed into that of co-regulator with roles of each fairly well understood. According to those who were in the agencies in those early years, there was tremendous cooperative interaction on how to accomplish the task. The states were on-the-ground and EPA was there if needed. States developed skills in the fundamentals of the programs: writing permits; conducting inspections; and assuring compliance. EPA was the steward of federal resources to aid in getting the work done. Training was provided to make sure these core competencies were understood by the practitioners. Importantly, EPA also developed standards and relevant science needed to feed into state decision-maker’s duties.
Somewhere along the way, cooperation turned into competition. EPA’s staff of incredible and competent people began to duplicate what states were already doing. For whatever reason and from whatever pressures, EPA incrementally developed many features of programs which mimicked and duplicated functions that states had in place for decades. We are at a point in time where state and federal fiscal realities demand that we return to the original vision. Thankfully, recent announcements indicate some encouraging signs on the horizon.
In many of the delegated programs, EPA has developed an extensive inspection and enforcement presence. The obsessive oversight structure carried out by EPA consumes tremendous resources from both EPA and the states. We have gotten away from a cooperative relationship where states write permits, conduct inspections, and assure compliance with the requirements. Now we have EPA doing many of the same functions which leads to confusion in the countryside and is too expensive for our stressed budgets. Over time, EPA has assumed many of these functions under the rubric of “oversight”, “federal presence”, and “special initiatives”. States have struggled with this duplication for many years but have not been able to right this ship. This development is leading us down the wrong road and, as the saying goes, “no matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back”. To me, it is time to turn back to the original concept.
Our general contractor has stepped into the work of its subcontractors and it is causing a mess. Our environmental house’s floor plan that has gone from one built on state and federal cooperation to one that has too many friction points, duplication and a lack of trust. This approach is very expensive and is not sustainable in a time when we clamor for sustainability.
We can’t afford to have our states dig the foundation and put up framing only to have EPA add a board here and a board there. EPA needs to be the resource for the states. Resources should be redirected within EPA away from duplicative functions like inspections and enforcement and instead focus on support for the states in science and risk assessment. Make sure that state professionals are well-trained to write protective permits, perform effective inspections, and pursue appropriate compliance. Redirect resources toward support activities such as those and also to functions unique to the federal government like EPA’s ability to respond to major incidents or emergencies. EPA’s response capabilities exceed those of the individual states and should be enhanced so that EPA has even greater ability to respond to any tornado, hurricane, or flood with adequate resources. An understanding of roles and functions needs to be reformed to recognize the best use of EPA’s talents and resources and the needs of the states.
There are efforts now being launched which are encouraging. Under tremendous state leadership in the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) and EPA, the evolving E-Enterprise effort holds great promise in correcting the way we do the environmental business of our country. There is a vision among state and EPA leadership that we need to be smarter in the way monitoring is done, the way data is collected and shared and the way we determine if we are protecting our environment. There is a recognition that the infrastructure for delivering environmental service to our citizens needs to be more effective. The work of those that have preceded us in the environmental field is remarkable. But now it is our job is to make sure that we adjust along the way so that we use the tools available to us in the most effective and efficient way possible.
The E-Enterprise effort is a collaborative state and EPA venture to improve the way business is done. If there is a smarter way to use technology to monitor air and water quicker and cheaper, then let’s do it. If the endless reporting that is performed by the states for EPA can be minimized with better data systems, let’s get on it. In turn, we need to effectively redirect any saved resources to carry out the level of environmental protection that people expect. Advancements in technology and business practices enable us to do work smarter. And, let’s take this opportunity in the E-Enterprise effort to make sure that we respect the cooperative federalism premise that Congress crafted many years ago.
Congress envisioned EPA as the general contractor to build environmental protection for our country. EPA would accomplish this incredible task with the help of its state, local, and tribal subcontractors. Neither the general contractor nor its subcontractors can accomplish this alone. But, together, we will have a house built to last.