Picking on GE... or protecting public?

By Elizabeth Whelan
Copyright 1998 Washington Times
October 18, 1998

This spring Congress took a hard, critical look at the Internal Revenue Service, an agency which stood accused of being arrogant, unaccountable, or in the words of Arkansas Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, "out of control."

Having moved toward taming that regulatory beast, Congress should now turn its attention to the unjustified punitive actions of another Beltway behemoth; the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA's current assault on General Electric over trace levels of PCBs in the Hudson River is a perfect example of how EPA uses hyperbole about risk to threaten corporations into making daunting expenditures - which are passed on to us consumers in the form of higher prices.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner asserts that: (a) there are "hot spots" of PCBs in the Hudson River, once buried in sludge but now dispersing into the water; (b) that these chemicals "probably cause cancer in people" and represent "a serious threat to public health" and (c) despite the fact that the PCBs if left alone would gradually dissipate, that it is GE's responsibility to remove every last trace of these allegedly harmful chemicals at an estimated cost of $50 million to $100 million plus an unknown additional amount to compensate those for whom the river is a source of income.

Mrs. Browner is now threatening to declare a PCB "health emergency" which, freely translated, means that if GE does not immediately comply, EPA would do the job and bill GE triple costs.

Rhetoric about "cancer causing agents" gives Mrs. Browner the immediate edge on popular opinion as to the necessity of her proposed action, but the facts point in the opposite direction:

In assessing the quality of EPA science, Congress should seek second opinions from the nation's leading cancer experts, both at the National Cancer Institute and in academia.

A number of EPA officials I have spoken with have argued that we have more to fear from EPA fearmongering than from PCBs buried in river sediment, noting there are endless things we could do to protect health if cost were no matter, such as building shields to protect us against meteorites. Congress should give EPA the same spanking it gave the IRS.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City.

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