Lee Thomas, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be worried these days. Appointed to the post by Reagan to continue the agency’s rehabilitation after the regulatory corruption and abdication by Reagan’s first EPA chief, Ann Gorsuch, he seems helpless to stop a major slide from mediocrity to abject surrender to the polluters.
Consider four recent developments. First the EPA is moving to downgrade drastically the toxicity of cancer risks by various chemicals in the food, water and fields of harvest. That’s like reducing crimes by abolishing certain criminal laws. If anything, present EPA levels of permissible toxic pesticide exposures are based on ridiculously low levels of consumption. For example, 7.5 ounces of cantaloupe per year per adult is the yardstick for determining whether certain pesticide levels found in that fruit are acceptable. Similar unrealistic levels apply for tangerines, avocados and other chemicalized fruits.
Second, EPA is backtracking from its previously announced plans to reduce lead in air and water, despite widely documented proof of its dangers, especially to infants and children. The previously planned regulations for reduction of lead levels in household drinking water and in gasoline were to go into effect early this year. No more. The lead additive ban has been shelved indefinitely and the reduced levels of lead to 20 parts per billion in drinking water have been delayed again until at least next September.
Third, for years EPA has been working on proposals to protect farmworkers from the deadly pesticide sprays and aerial dousing.
These proposals would cover extending coverage to 300,000 workers in nurseries and greenhouses, requiring the monitoring of workers who apply the pesticides, imposing new notice requirements in the fields and extending waiting periods after certain pesticide applications before workers could go back into a growing area. Now word comes that EPA is weakening pending regulations across the board to suit the demands of the growers and chemical companies.
Fourth, the EPA re port to the release of our report earlier this month, titled “Troubled Waters on Tap”, charging the agency with neither doing the required testing, setting the necessary standards or enforcing against violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. EPA’s response, via the agency’s chief Reaganite operative, Lowell Jensen, was that the water is safe and the law is being enforced. Yet EPA’s own records show a dismally laggard record and an unwillingness even to police the requirement that community water departments give immediate public notifications to citizens when violations or dangerous conditions are found.
In my meeting with Lee Thomas, during the summer of 1986, I suggested that the Agency prepare a pamphlet informing Americans of their rights under the federal drinking water law. He concurred. A draft was prepared a few months later for final review. A year after that, the pamphlet still has not been published. Consumers will have to rely on materials prepared by the League of Women Voters which has launched a national project to reduce drinking water contamination through grass roots pressure on EPA and local water works.
The last year of a corporatist government, such as is Reagan’s, is replete with give-a-ways by political appointees who are angling for cushy jobs at the peaks of industry and commerce. The media would do well to place itself on high alert for such convergences of interests in the countdown months of the Reagan regime.
But Lee Thomas was supposed to be different from the grimlipped rightwingers that lace the top echelons of the Reagan Administration. If he doesn’t take hold of EPA, lots of damage will be done to the health of many people. And his reputation will not escape the harsh verdict of history by posing as a “nice guy”.