William Ruckelshaus, who served as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon and returned to the post for Ronald Reagan, says protecting the environment used to be a bipartisan cause. For the “Politics of Poison”  project, done in conjunction with the investigative radio program Reveal , Ruckelshaus spoke recently with the Center for Public Integrity’s David Heath. He was critical of GOP attacks on the EPA and on industry efforts to thwart scientific evaluations of toxic chemicals. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Heath: Many people may have forgotten that it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who created the EPA.
Ruckelshaus: Well, when EPA was created, as you correctly state, by President Nixon’s recommendation to the Congress, the issue of the environment was a very nonpartisan, bipartisan issue. There wasn't a lot of dispute over the need to protect public health, protect the environment.
We had all kinds of evidence flashing across television screens every morning or every evening about rivers catching on fire, smog alerts, badly polluted waters and air all over the country. And people were reacting to that and demanding action. And they saw the action was primarily at the state level and so they were strongly encouraging the federal government to take a more major role.
Q: So the Republican Party used to support the EPA?
A: It did completely when EPA was created. It was introduced by a bipartisan group, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which was the principal committee in the Senate that oversaw the activities of the new agency. This was 1970.
Q: You were the first EPA administrator under President Nixon and came back under President Reagan. Have things changed since the Reagan administration?
A: Oh, yes, quite a bit. The Reagan Administration was less sympathetic than the Nixon Administration to environmental regulation, environmental laws, but nowhere near where the Republican Party has come today. There [was] still a lot of bipartisan support for environmental protection back in the '80s during Reagan’s two terms. But that’s all changed today. The issue divides almost entirely along partisan lines.
The public demand for action has declined so that those people in Congress in Republican districts are not feeling any pressure from their constituents to do anything about the environment. Quite the contrary, they’re being told, and they’re feeding ... by their own rhetoric that these things are overblown, that regulation is hurting the economy and that we ought to back away from environmental protection.
Q: Some Republicans are calling for the elimination of the EPA. What do you think of that?
A: I think that’s a terrible idea. They would believe that, too, if they ever did it, because you’re never going to get away from dealing with these issues. We still have pollution problems, whether air, water or toxic substance, whatever it might be. They’re not going away. The environment isn’t an issue [where] you can claim victory and walk away from it. You have to stay everlastingly at it because the minute you take your eye off what’s happening, pollution rears its ugly head again.
So if EPA were to be abolished, just as sure as I’m talking to you, problems would arise that will take governmental intervention to resolve them. And there would become demands for some agency like EPA, some new agency, to take over, or the Congress itself would have to wrestle with these problems. And believe me, they wouldn’t do it more than six months before they'd create a new agency to take it off their hands.
Q: We’ve found that the chemical industry, with the support of Republicans in Congress, has managed to slow the pace of EPA chemical risk assessments. Your thoughts?
A: Well, it’s a tactic that the producers of suspect chemicals or toxins use. The longer they delay the assessment of the risk, the longer it will take for any regulatory activity ... to restrict the use of that particular substance. It’s simply a tactic to use; it’s not the only one but it is a tactic they use. It’s unfortunate and sometimes very effective. It stalls regulatory action, in some cases for years. [Members of Congress] also reduce the amount of money available to EPA to test these chemicals so that in a timely fashion they can figure out which ones are really bothersome and which ones we ought to be paying attention to.
Q: We reported last year that the EPA took a new look at arsenic in 2003 and found it was far more potent than had been believed . With the help of Congress, that assessment was delayed indefinitely. What is the risk of such delays?
A: The risk is that the public will continue to be exposed to what may be unacceptable limits of these chemicals which ... in the case of arsenic, is a known carcinogen. Arsenic causes other problems as well, as we’ve known for years. Any time you have a new risk assessment on the way, the longer you delay it ... the higher the risk for the public that something terrible will happen.
Q:The EPA in 1998 started to look at formaldehyde and concluded that it could cause leukemia. But to this day, because of political pressure, it has not been able to get that information published. Do you see this as a problem for the public?
A: Sure it is. Anytime that a scientific group or the EPA or any other agency that has regulatory authority over these kinds of chemicals finds something wrong it ought to be immediately published. There ought to be an open, transparent debate over whether the risk assessment is correct. And if it is correct [it] should trigger additional regulatory controls to protect public health. To the extent that that’s delayed or stalled in some way it’s really unconscionable, particularly if it’s done on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemical and has economic benefit associated with it.
Q: Why do you think industry attempts to delay science are succeeding?
A: The public isn’t paying enough attention. First place, these issues are complicated. There are legitimate debates over the impact of a substance on human health or, for that matter, even animal health or environmental protection. Those legitimate concerns should be argued ... on the risk assessment side of things. The longer you can stretch out that risk assessment, the more doubt you can throw on the assessments already done as to the impact of the substance on human health. The longer the delay, the longer you can continue to market the product in ways that continue to make a profit for the manufacturer.
Q: In 2008, the Government Accountability Office said the EPA was so far behind in doing chemical assessments and was producing so few of them that the Integrated Risk Information System was virtually worthless. When President Obama took office, one of his pledges was to try to fix that. Instead, we have seen fewer assessments in the last three years than ever before. What are your thoughts about that?
A: Well, I think there’s two things could be causing that. One is that ...Congress has cut back on the amount of money EPA has to conduct these risk assessments to manage that program. If you want to slow it down, just provide less people to do the work so that the scientists necessary to conduct the studies simply aren’t there. That’s one way of stalling.
The other way is just to do everything you can to throw sand in the gears of the whole process by stretching out the timeframe. Doing studies that should be included according to the proponents of the studies in the risk assessment originally. This stretches out the time in which the study has to be made and stretches out the time that the product remains unregulated or not regulated as sufficiently as it should be.
There are a lot of things you can do if you’re not trying to get at the truth; all you’re trying to do is stall. These assessments are not simple to do. They’re expensive and they take a long time as they should because we ought to be certain about what we think the risk is when we begin to regulate it. But if the only purpose of [an] additional call for studies is to delay, that’s simple unacceptable.
Q: When you were administrator of the EPA, did you see this kind of pressure?
A: Not nearly as much in the beginning as ... there is today. In the beginning -- I mean in 1970, when EPA started -- there were unhappy industries that were affected by regulation. In some cases they expressed that unhappiness in very stringent terms. The automobile industry descended on the Congress with all four chief executive officers of the major automobile companies in this country in 1970 to try to delay or kill the Clean Air Act. It passed 73 to 1 in the Senate, and only a couple of dissenting votes in the House.
So, that kind of pressure that was put on the Congress, or for that matter the EPA, it just wasn’t effective when the public is alert watching what’s going on and paying attention to the end result.
Q: Do you think industry has changed the way it lobbies the EPA or lobbies Congress to block the EPA?
A: It clearly has. The industry has clearly become more sophisticated in the way in which it contacts EPA. They do it through the Office of Management and Budget. There is a special part of the OMB, the budget agency that looks at the risk-cost benefit of any regulatory action. It’s the president’s effort to control an agency that might be making decisions that he considers unwise. The industry often will try to impact that analysis going on at OMB.
Q:The Obama administration made it a priority to stop political interference in science; the president even mentioned this in his first inaugural address. Yet he seems not to have been able to do that.
A: He can and should, and I couldn’t agree with him more that there should not be any political interference, because it’s science. If people can’t trust the government to do honest science, then what can they trust them to do? What you should do with the information that the scientific method generates is a legitimate discussion to be had in the society. A legitimate debate, but the facts should be the facts. Whatever data comes from studies should be used as factual data, assuming it can be duplicated and through the scientific method verified. There should be no interference with that factual assessment.
Q: Do you think government should be involved in protecting the public health?
A: If it isn’t the government, who’s it going to be? You can’t rely on somebody manufacturing something that has an economic benefit ... Now, in some cases they are concerned about public health and ... their conscience will tell them that this should not be sold in the manner in which it is used....
I think what we’re seeing now is an extreme swing of the pendulum against regulatory action by the government. But I personally believe something will happen that will wake people up so that they’ll see we do need the government to help with these kinds of problems. Then we’ll demand that the government step back in and take stronger action. We just haven’t had one of those for quite a while.