Environmental Protection:

Meeting Public Expectations With Limited Resources

RCED-91-97: Published: Jun 18, 1991. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 1991.

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GAO provided information on approaches by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress to make environmental programs more cost-effective.

GAO found that: (1) EPA estimated that by 2000, the United States could be spending $160 billion annually on pollution control, almost 90 percent more than it spent in 1987; (2) the federal budget deficit restricted the government's ability to adequately address all the nation's environmental problems; and (3) although costly, environmental controls resulted in substantial and valuable benefits in human health, recreational opportunities, visibility, and environmental integrity. GAO also found that: (1) the federal budget deficit and a growing list of environmental problems made it increasingly important that environmental policies reflect relative environmental and public health risks, as well as the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of various approaches to reduce those risks; (2) EPA needed to move beyond reliance on regulatory activities to measure its progress and develop environmental indicators that could be linked to program objectives; (3) since the traditional environmental regulatory framework cannot resolve such problems as pollution from small diffuse sources and pollutants that cross from one environmental medium to another, supplementing traditional regulatory approaches with pollution prevention and market incentives would be more economical and effective in controlling and preventing pollution; and (4) since new federal environmental standards place much of the financial burden on local governments to administer and carry out programs, EPA should examine alternatives to addressing the financial needs of small communities in their efforts to comply with federal environmental requirements.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: As the 102nd Congress deliberates establishing a Cabinet department for the environment, it may wish to consider establishing a bureau or center for environmental statistics as a means to strengthen EPA ability to measure environmental results.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The proposed Senate legislation mentioned above would also have created a Bureau of Environmental Statistics.

    Matter: A unified environmental statute could significantly enhance EPA ability to set priorities and more effectively and efficiently address the nation's most serious problems. Because of the enormous changes that such an act would entail in existing legislation, Congress may wish to consider establishing a study commission, such as that called for in House and Senate proposals to create a Cabinet department of environmental protection, to evaluate the merits of integrating existing environmental legislation.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Proposed Senate legislation to establish a Department of the Environment would have also created a Presidential Commission on Improving Environmental Protection to examine and make recommendations on the management and implementation of environmental laws and programs. This bill has passed the Senate. A counterpart House bill, however, was not been acted upon.

    Matter: In authorizing and appropriating funds for EPA, Congress should take into account the EPA reordering of budget priorities reflecting relative risks to human health and the environment, as well as the costs and feasibility of reducing those risks.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA oversight and appropriations committees are aware of the need to set priorities. Numerous members, for example, have introduced legislation in the 103rd Congress, that would aim to achieve greater risk reduction with available resources. However, the nature of this recommendation is such that action will never be "complete." Instead, the recommendation can be viewed as a goal.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should work closely with Congress to identify opportunities for shifting resources from problems whose risks to human health or the environment are less severe to problems whose risks are greater.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA believes that, within its statutory constraints, it is carrying out this recommendation, working with both Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to try to align its budget with high-risk areas. EPA has been responsive to this recommendation in trying to redirect its resources toward high-risk areas, but the nature of this recommendation is such that it will never be completely implemented.

    Recommendation: Recognizing that the federal role in assisting small communities goes beyond EPA responsibilities, EPA should work with those other agencies to make sure that federal assistance is properly coordinated and targeted.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The nature of this recommendation is such that although it is a worthwhile goal, it will never be "complete."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should report to Congress on: (1) the nature of the costs localities face in paying for federal environmental requirements; (2) the availability of financing from nonfederal sources for localities; (3) their expected funding shortfalls after financing from nonfederal sources; and (4) alternatives to reducing those shortfalls, including possible legislative or regulatory relief.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although EPA claims that better understanding state and local governments' capacity has been a major focus, it would want to discuss the outline of a potentially comprehensive report to ensure that it is a productive use of limited resources. EPA has responded to this recommendation in the case of some programs, such as clean water and safe drinking, and the agency recently assembled a State Capacity Task Force to examine the issue on an agencywide basis.

    Recommendation: In conjunction with the reauthorization of major environmental statutes, the Administrator, EPA, should work with Congress to develop legislation that reflects: (1) additional opportunities to achieve environmental goals through nonregulatory means; (2) ways in which those methods might complement or replace existing regulations; and (3) the most effective mixture of both approaches.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has been responsive to this recommendation, but the nature of the recommendation is such that action can never be "complete."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct some portion of the agency's educational activities specifically toward informing the public about the relative seriousness of the nation's environmental problems.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA indicates that a number of educational activities are under way, some of which help to educate the public about relative risk.

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