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Issue 35.5

Privatizing Environmental Protection

An interview by Arthur Stamoulis

This fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would begin outsourcing some of its positions to private corporations.  There announcement suggests that they even intend to privatize positions involving the enforcement of environmental laws. 

The following Q&A is an abridged discussion Clamor economics editor Arthur Stamoulis had the opportunity to have via email with Jeff Ruch, the Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Why is PEER opposed to this outsourcing?

Protecting the environment and public health from pollution threats, most of which are corporate in origin, is a governmental function. Delegating these public health functions out to the corporate community is, in our view, inherently dangerous.

Beyond the fact that it erodes employee morale and is quite disruptive, this is not being done to improve agency operations. EPA does not and cannot even identify precisely what aspect of agency operations it is seeking to improve.

There is a consensus that federal agencies manage contracts poorly.  This program increases reliance on EPA’s weakest trait.  It is illustrative that EPA has to rely on contractors to design and oversee this contractor competition.  It is also beyond ironic that some of the financial staff designated for outsourcing are supposed to be overseeing contractors.  Thus, the outsourcing program is converting government agencies into entities composed of contractors, overseen by contractors, operating for the benefit of contractors.

What is the driving force behind EPA’s decision to outsource jobs?  Will it increase efficiency or save taxpayers money?

The outsourcing program is an ideologically driven, one-size-fits-all management bromide, premised on the assumption that any private sector competition automatically creates a more efficient organization—a premise that appears to lack any empirical foundation.

EPA admits that it can project no fiscal savings from this exercise. It is likely, given the expense of staging the contractor bidding, that the agency will lose money that should otherwise have been devoted to pollution control efforts.

At root, this is a cynically political program inspired by Texas Rep. Tom DeLay.  The real motivating factor is to replace civil servants belonging to unions that traditionally support Democratic candidates with contracting firms whose PACs traditionally contribute to Republicans.  It is a classic “reward your friends, punish your enemies” gambit that is part of a larger plan to de-fund progressive political elements.

Many environmentalists are less-than-thrilled with EPA’s current enforcement of environmental laws.  What impact, if any, do you think privatization would have on environmental monitoring, oversight and enforcement actions? 

In states that have contracted out permitting and enforcement tasks, corporate violators retain the very same consultants employed by the state.  The result is a form of environmental insider trading to the detriment of the public interest.  It is analogous to prosecutors subcontracting their cases to private law firms that defend the mob.

How does this issue fit into PEER’s mission? 

As our name implies, PEER represents public employees working within environmental agencies.  As explained above, agency employees believe that Bush administration efforts to corporatize EPA’s operations threatens to undermine the agency’s public health and resource protection mission.

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