Interview: EPA's Stephen L. Johnson
By Christine Dell'Amore
United Press International
Published December 6, 2006
ATLANTA, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Innovation in protecting the environment and health could come in new energy technologies and a local community approach to problems, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson told United Press International in an interview Wednesday. UPI talked to Johnson, who has led the agency since January 2005, following his speech at the National Environmental Public Health conference Wednesday in Atlanta.
Q. In your view, what are the foremost challenges in environmental health?
A. From an environmental health standpoint, they are the same as ... the five priority areas for me as administrator.
The first is affordable energy and clean air. ... We have to have energy, and it has to be affordable. While we have made great strides -- for example, we recently signed (a law that) went into effect eliminating sulfur from diesel fuel, and moving from 500 parts per million to, in essence, a negligible 15 parts per million sulfur (emissions). What that means is over $150 billion of health benefits a year in premature deaths, asthma, hospital visits -- what a great opportunity.
Second, clean, safe and sustainable water. ... We've made great progress as a nation, but we have an aging (water) infrastructure. How are we going to address that? Water quality is essential to life. Third, healthy communities ... face a whole host of issues from growth -- from how to get them to pay attention to smart growth, to green buildings to dealing with Superfund sites and brownfield sites. Fourth, globally many countries (such as) China, India and South Korea are growing economies, and they need to be paying more attention to economic growth, environmental protection and public health protection. How do we work together with them to affect the globe in a positive way?
Lastly a stronger EPA, which also includes homeland security. ... EPA is over 35 years old. Many of our scientists and healthcare professionals are retiring. How do we recruit, retain and transfer their knowledge? How do we make sure we have a workforce that has outstanding scientific expertise to advise future administrators on decision-making?
Q. The surgeon general has said indoor environments are often overlooked. Do you feel that's an issue to be emphasized?
A. We have no statutory authority for indoor air. Having said that, we have a lot of experience with outdoor air with pollutants, and we're working hard to share that information with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and others so people can make informed decisions about how they (build and maintain) buildings. We are great advocates of green buildings -- it helps with energy and water. We recently launched an initiative called WaterSense; sometime next year (you'll) see products labeled with WaterSense, so you know these are the most efficient products on the market. It's just like ENERGY STAR. What a great opportunity there is for making a difference. It's amazing to me that if every household in the U.S. changed just one light bulb from incandescent to energy-efficient, we would save enough electricity to light approximately 25 million homes.
Anything we can do to reduce our energy footprint that helps us from a security standpoint, an environmental standpoint and public standpoint, that's what we ought to do.
Q. Does the CARE program (the Community Action for a Renewed Environment initiative, which gives communities grants to rid their neighborhoods of toxic pollution) represent a new paradigm shift of looking at local strategies for environmental and health protection?
A. It does, and it's one we see as the wave of the future. Communities need help. ... They (might) not know what the problem is, so they need help to figure it out. That's what the CARE program is about. The first phase is to help communities figure out what the problem is. The second phase is to help them take steps to correct whatever the problem is. It's very well-received, and it's the second year of the grant program.
Q. Any successes yet?
A. Half to two-thirds (of the process is) figuring out what the problem is. ... We're not there, but we expect next year to be reporting on the early successes. The president himself is very supportive of this; his '07 budget is almost doubling the grant money for this effort.
Q. You said with the tight budget it's hard to prioritize certain topics --
A. Let's put it in perspective. I talked about our aging water infrastructure. The country needs an estimated $500 billion just ... to restore the aging infrastructure and maintain and operate it. EPA's total budget is $8 billion. Superfund sites need billions and billions of dollars. The good news is the way the law is constructed, we have great legal authority to go after the responsible parties. In 70 percent of the cases, responsible parties pay for cleanup. That takes a lot of time and energy and unfortunately a lot of lawsuits. We're making progress there.
Then you can look at geographic areas, for example the Great Lakes. We've been actively working with all our partners to restore the Great Lakes. The price tags to clean up and restore it range from $15 billion to $20 billion. That's the Great Lakes -- if you want to talk about Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound ... the needs are enormous, far exceeding any possible federal budget. Which then leads to, we need to prioritize and work together -- not just federal government or state or tribal government -- all of us working together.
Q. Dr. Frumkin (director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health) opened this conference with a call to arms on combating climate change. I'm curious what your take is on that and how it fits into public health?
A. It's a great deal of concern for EPA and the president. That's why we as a nation, at the end of this year, will have spent $29 billion on research -- both understanding the science and figuring out technology to address it. That's more than any nation in entire world. It is something we care deeply about. The exciting thing is we're beginning to see results of that investment.
For example, now in law is a commitment to almost double renewable fuels. Here are homegrown corns, soybeans, switchgrass -- now being turned into biodiesel and ethanol. Ethanol and biodiesel (can) leave a better environmental footprint than gasoline. Depending on the air pollutant, it's anywhere from a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in air pollution, including greenhouse emissions. Wow, isn't that exciting? Here's this renewable fuel that's good for agriculture, it gets us off the treadmill of dependence on foreign oil -- so it's good for energy security -- and it's good for the environment.
When I was growing up, I read Popular Science -- I was a science nerd -- and when I was reading Popular Science way back when, I remember the articles that said, wouldn't it be fantastic for the day when you could take your automobile, drive into your garage and plug it into your house to charge? GM (General Motors) and others are doing that. What's more exciting, we have on loan at EPA a hydrogen fuel cell car from GM. It runs on hydrogen, so what comes out of tailpipe is water -- no environmental impact whatsoever. The engine is so powerful it produces enough electricity to not only power the car, but to power at least five homes.
Think about instead of pulling your car into the garage to plug the car into the house -- think about having houses plug into the car, with no environmental pollution. When all is said and done, whether it's clean coal technology or automobiles or dealing with methane, it is very much technology-driven. That's why it has been so important for the president and the administration to invest in that. You can talk about it, but unless you have the technology to fix it, nothing's going to happen. It's very exciting to see these new technologies come on board that are great for energy security, great for agriculture, great for the environment ... and great for public health.