Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Outgoing EPA official sees no environmental defeat in Reagan election

What happened to John McGuire Feb. 8 could be seen as confirmation of the worst fears of environmentalists about the new Reagan administration. As outgoing Region V administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) , Mr. McGuire might be forgiven a bit of bitterness.

But despite being relieved of his post, McGuire does not feel that Ronald Reagan's presidential victory was a defeat for clean air, clean water, and wilderness.

About these ads

On the contrary, based on his recent experience working with industrialists in his Mid- western district, McGuire say he feels that a new era of cooperation between business and government in the antipollution field is about to begin.

Just why the Region V director has lost his job is not clear. It is known that soon after taking over the White House, the Reagan adminisration asked seven of the 10 EPA regional chiefs to submit their resignations. (The other three are career civil sercice appointments). Three of the seven resignations have been "accepted," including McGuire's.

An EPA official said of McGuire's dismissal, "The new administration felt it wanted to have a Republican in that key position.

Prior to his EPA appointment in August 1978 by EPA administrator Douglas M. Costle, Mr. McGuire, a lawyer, was director of the illinois Department of Conservation and worked with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He has also served as co-chairman of the joint US-Canadian Great Lakes Water Quality Board and a member of the Great Lakes Basin Commission, the Upper Mississippi River Basin Commission, and the Ohio River Basin Commission.

The ex-administrator shrugs off speculation that he may have been removed for aggressively seeking to enforce EPA regulations.

As soon as the lame-duck Congress passed the "superfund" toxic waste cleanup bill last November, administrator McGuire in Chicago moved to implement its provisions. The legislation significantly increased federal and state powers to: (1) clean up an estimated 2,000 abandoned hazardous waste dumping sites at an eventual cost -- largely to industry -- of perhaps $44 billion; (2) control the continuing disposal of some 57 million tons of toxic wastes produced each year by 762,000 US businesses, which now must account meticulously for every ounce.

Measured by compliance orders issued, the man who has made most use of superfund since it went into effect Nov. 19 is John McGuire.

About these ads

Enforcement of environmental regulations had to be aggressive in Region V, McGuire explains, because it is the largest of the 10 EPA regions. It contains 20 percent of the US population and 25 percent of the nation's industry. More than a quarter of the country's hazardous waste is produced in the area. That amount of chemical waste, combined with the presence of the Great Lakes and major river systems, makes this a crucial area environmentally.

Region V enforcement teams were able to move in on targeted problem sites instantly because they had done a vast amount of preliminary work." "We developed ways of getting better information," explains McGuire. Methods included a hot-line telephone to gather tips from the public and a series of television spots to inform people about clues that might lead to hazardous waste sites.

Working with local and state officials, the EPA swept areas systematically to find problems and list them in order of priority for later action. Policemen in cities were taught to spot "midnight dumpers," and state police learned how to detect trucks carrying hazardous wastes.

Says McGuire, "we'd increased the number of people sensitized to the problem and who knew what to look for." He is confident that this new sensitivity will continue to pay off, because the public has become deeply concerned as instances of improper disposal of hazardous wastes have been uncovered in almost every state.

Why is McGuire sanquine about environmental protection under the Reagan presidency?Because he feels that his approach to fighting pollution meshes well with the new administration's aim of returning powers to the states and freeing business from overregulation.

"Our goal," he says, "is not to catch business in noncompliance, but to help business be in compliance." Accordingly, his office regularly circulated lists of offenses that had been discovered so that other businesses would know where to look to bring their own operations into compliance. McGuire says the EPA has worked hard to leave as much as possible up to individual states and "to develop a better dialogue with business and industry -- to tap their own initiative."

This federal-state-business partnership will become increasingly important, McGuire feels, because society is increasingly dependent on synthetic chemicals.

One practical result of McGuire's determination to build three-way cooperation came Feb. 4 with the creation of an "information clearing house" for Illinois industry. Funded by the EPA as a model for the rest of the country, this industry-run clearing house is designed to cut the costs and confusion that industry faces in meeting air quality standards.

Another sign of the changed climate here comes from Hugh Thomas, general counsel for Outboad Marine Corporation. This firm, midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, is battling an EPA suit charging it with seriously polluting Lake Michigan with highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Yet Mr. Thomas says that he found McGuire "easy to work with . . . willing to discuss and understand opposing views."

McGuire says he is not surprised that business is showing greater respect for the EPA. He expects this respect to grow because "it's in business's own interest towork with technically qualified professionals to achieve clean air and water requirements with the least economic disruption. . . . I don't think that business and industry want to have devastating effects on the environment."

He does not see his dismissal as a sign that EPA standards will be dismanteled by a pro- business Reagan administration. Instead, he sees changes coming about as a result of new information and new skills being developed.

In some areas, he expects "zero-discharge" goals to be abandoned "as we learn more about what the environment can absorb safely." New distinctions will be made "based on definite data about the health or environmental impact of particular pollutants." New data, he says, will cause some rules to be relaxed nd others tightened.

Such changes will be part of an orderly, congressionally-mandated process, McGuire says, adding that "all the enviromental laws and regulations are going to go through a period of intense scrutiny." McGuire welcomes this scrutiny, confident that EPA's achievements have proved that "there is no inconsistency between sound environmental policy an d good economic and energy policies."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.