Ky. Voices: Bureaucratic morass threatens environmental protection

Forty years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, I was finishing my graduate work in chemical engineering. I was excited that needed steps were being taken to aggressively address cleanup of the environment. The pollution of our air, land and waterways had risen to the level of a national man-made disaster.

Over the years, much has been done to make our air cleaner, our water more drinkable and our land a safer place on which to live. But what started as an important and necessary initiative has grown into a mammoth bureaucratic morass of unfunded mandates and program changes that do little to actually improve the environment.

The public expects both the EPA and the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM), along with the state regulatory agencies, to make certain those regulations are being followed. But we have instead put into place a regulatory process that fuels a set of actions that has brought environmental agencies and the regulated industries in virtually every state to their knees. This has resulted from a cumulative set of actions that began to accelerate two decades ago.

As an example, in our Division of Water, the number of staff declined by 8 percent during the last decade while the number of permits increased 56 percent. According to the Environmental Council of the States, more than 700 new mandates were issued by the EPA alone in the last 10 years. As a result, the public is given a false sense of security that everything that can possibly be done to ensure a safe and clean environment is being done because the EPA and OSM have deemed it so, just by promulgating more regulations and programs.

However, it is virtually impossible for any of the 50 states' environmental regulatory agencies to satisfy all the requirements under the ever-growing mountain of regulatory edicts and unfunded mandates handed down from Washington. It's a little like putting our finger in the regulatory dike and hoping it doesn't come crashing down.

Here is a small example of what Kentucky environmental regulators face every day: In the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection (DEP), it is estimated there are 20 million to 40 million environmental data points generated each year that require review under current federal and state laws and regulations.

It is reasonable to take the median number of 30 million data points that 562 staffers must monitor. Over a year's time, that equates to 120,000 data points per day or 213 data points per person each day of the year. But even that number is skewed because the vast majority of our employees also do other tasks than monitoring data — writing permits, performing inspections, taking enforcement actions, etc.

In reality, the department can safely estimate that it can provide 56 people devoted full-time to data analysis. The equation then becomes 2,150 data points each and every day for each of those 56 employees: That is a data point every 10 to 15 seconds.

Lawsuits by well-meaning environmental groups have created further chaos within our cabinet's legal division, already strapped with many fewer attorneys than needed. For example, the number of such challenges is four times greater than it was in 1990. The ability to adequately respond to the onslaught of legal issues, many arising from EPA and OSM policies that constantly change without notice, is daunting at best.

I give those numbers to show how ominous and overwhelming it is for any state's environmental protection and natural resources agencies, not just Kentucky's, to try to keep up with the ever-increasing workload caused by the directives from the federal government. But despite these overwhelming odds, the men and women of the Energy and Environment Cabinet continue to work hard to make sure the environmental laws and regulations that govern business and industry in Kentucky are followed.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to allocation of resources. Moving people from one area to another when a crisis arises is common. But making certain the essential natural resources of Kentucky are protected remains our priority.

Our drinking water from public systems is clean. We are making significant strides in improving air quality. We have closed 21 unregulated landfills since 1992, and more are in the beginning phases of being remediated and permanently closed. And in areas such as storm-system and sanitary-sewer overflows, Kentucky has moved progressively to ensure municipalities and private companies are obeying the laws and following regulations. I am convinced we are delivering significant benefits to the people of Kentucky as well. But addressing all of the mandates requires much greater resources than Kentucky, and other states have and necessitates we make priorities on a daily basis.

A pledge on behalf of the men and women who come to work each day is to make a positive impact on the lives of Kentuckians: Every one of us wishes to be viewed as having made a difference. After all, we live here as well and we also must breathe the air and drink the water. Making sure those resources we do have are the best they can be for everyone is our mission. That requires that we all cooperate and work in unison and good faith.