On the Record: The Sierra Clubs Ed Hopkins

Observers on both sides of the green policy issue realize the nation's environmental laws aren't getting any younger. Revamping them calls for a fresh look at how states have done as frontline enforcers. Stateline.org. Staff writer John Nagy recently asked environmentalist Ed Hopkins for his assessment.

The director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality program, Hopkins has spent 22 years as a grassroots organizer and lobbyist, including three years as a policy analyst under former Democratic Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste during the mid-1980s. In 1998, Hopkins served as a consultant to the Pesticide Right-to-Know Campaign, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.org.

Stateline.org: The Society of Environmental Journalists is meeting in Lansing, Mich., next week (Oct. 19-22) for its tenth annual conference. One of the questions they are asking is how well the states are doing as the primary agents of environmental protection?

Hopkins: Michigan is doing horribly. In fact, as a direct result of a petition that the Sierra Club and some other organizations submitted, EPA Region 5 has done an assessment of Michigan's Clean Water Act program as it relates to factory farms and issued an interim report that documents what a terrible job they're doing.

(Michigan Director of Environmental Quality) Russell Harding is, I would say, of the school of thought that states ought to run environmental programs without any federal oversight. You know, they want federal money, but they don't want the federal government to instruct them as to what they should do.

Stateline.org: That's something you disagree with?

Hopkins: Yes. Back in the 1970s, some basic laws - the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) - were passed to give Americans national environmental protections.

Generally, the public wants to make sure that environmental laws are carried out and enforced. We understand that these laws delegate responsibilities to the states. The states have a responsibility to carry out those laws. Some of the states, like Michigan in particular, are falling down in that area. And we think there needs to be stronger federal oversight.

Stateline.org: The National Governors' Association singles out Michigan for its brownfields program. Are they doing better in that area?

Hopkins: No, I wouldn't say so. They're an example of a state, along with Ohio, that have what we consider to be very weak brownfields programs that don't allow for significant involvement in the clean-up process and allow clean-ups that are in many cases little more than cover-ups. So we don't think very highly of Michigan's brownfields program.

Stateline.org: Are there better examples? The head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, James Seif, just testified before Congress and touted his own brownfields program.

Hopkins: Well, Massachusetts has a pretty good brownfields program. I've seen more positive things about their program than others.

Stateline.org: What do you especially like about what they do?

Hopkins: I think there is a stronger public involvement in the program there than in other states. And that is very important to us. We think we are likelier to get better clean-ups if there is more opportunity for public involvement in the process. But generally we are not satisfied with many states' brownfields programs because again we are concerned that state statutes or regulations allow for incomplete clean-ups. We want to see brownfields thoroughly remediated, not just partly cleaned up and then left with some institutional controls that may or may not work in the future.

Stateline.org: Do you think states are dropping the ball on brownfields or lowering air and water quality standards because they are afraid of losing businesses to another state? Or is there more to it than that?

Hopkins: Well, I think that's their principal concern. And I don't think they want to impose what they would see as onerous conditions on businesses.

Stateline.org: By and large, states hope that a retooled federal environmental policy will confirm their role as the regulatory vanguard, lighten the current emphasis on process and penalties in favor of results, improve data collection and management and provide states more money to get the job done. Are these desirable guidelines?

Hopkins: We would agree with them on the need for more money to get the job done. That's a common goal. I think some of these state programs have been relying on the federal government while cutting back on state environmental funding. I used to work in Ohio and that was the case there when George Voinovich was governor. They can't just depend on the federal government for more money and then tell the federal government that they don't want to follow federal rules. Society just doesn't work that way and generally it's the people who pay the bills who determine what the rules are. That's a fact of life.

Stateline.org: I haven't heard any state environmental officials say that they want to ignore the rules. Most of them are saying that they want to build on federal guidelines as a baseline.

Hopkins: In other areas, I think there is a need for better information and data collection. But I think that sometimes the states use the better information request or the need for better information as sort of a code word or code phrase for "we can't take any action until all the information is in." If we're going to get beyond the point where we are, where 40 percent of the nation's waters are not meeting water quality standards, we have to take action even in the absence of complete information. And I think we would have a disagreement with some of the states there.

Some of the states are very interested in "voluntary partnerships," (as) they often call them. And we're very suspicious of those arrangements. We don't think there's enough accountability there and we just don't think that voluntary arrangements are going to be successful in cleaning up the environment and protecting people's health.

Stateline.org: Is there anything to the idea of providing incentives to avoid dragging industry along by its heels? What about bringing business on board?

Hopkins: Well, I guess it would depend on what those incentives are. We'd have to consider those individually. But generally, we think the best incentive is strong enforcement of the law.

Stateline.org: How about pollution-prevention permitting, like Oregon's `green permits'?

Hopkins: I think Massachusetts has a program like that as well. I think those programs may have some potential. And I think there probably may be some ways to have more integrated permitting than we have now.

Stateline.org: Do you question the sincerity of state environmental directors?

Hopkins: I don't know that I would use the word sincerity.' I guess I question the effectiveness of the environmental policy philosophies that they are promoting. I don't think I can think of an example right off hand where I have seen states come to Washington and testify and be in agreement with policies that environmental groups have.

There is a pretty wide gap between environmentalists and state regulators. And we often find ourselves going to U.S. EPA to try to get them to exercise better oversight over states.

Stateline.org: How do you view the relationship between the state agencies and the federal EPA?

Hopkins: Well, I think it's usually pretty tense. And from our point of view, states are trying to do the minimum. They have a phrase that they use here, which I'm sure that you've heard, which is "functionally equivalent." (It) involves some divergence, large or small depending on your perspective, from federal requirements. We see them constantly trying to do less than we think is required by EPA. And I think that is a tough position for EPA, too. States are big constituents of EPA. Powerful constituents. And EPA has to pay a lot of attention to them.

Stateline.org: One question raised by members of Congress is the question of whether states are engaged in a race to the top' or a race to the bottom.' Is that the most pertinent question for policymakers to be asking as they look toward revamping some key pieces of environmental legislation?

Hopkins: I think that is an important question. And I think that is the whole purpose for having uniform, minimal, national environmental policies: To avoid a race to the bottom. We don't see much of a race to the top.