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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions 4 EPA's Position in the Broader Environmental Research Enterprise EPA'S ROLE IN RESEARCH EPA is an important entity in the environmental regulatory arena, and its research efforts are influential in the advancement of environmental knowledge. But the agency is not by any means alone among government and private organizations conducting environmental research. EPA conducts approximately $500 million out of approximately $5 billion of federally supported environmental research annually. Other organizations involved in environmental research are shown in Figure 4-1. It is in EPA's interest to be an active participant in inter-agency and interorganizational research to assure that the agency (1) receives from and transmits to other organizations relevant research information of mutual interest and (2) maintains a credible research program that is supportive of EPA's mandated regulatory activities while staying within the agency's budget. Given limited resources and the magnitude of the challenge, EPA must adopt a highly selective approach in guiding research pursuits. This chapter focuses on EPA's evolving research mission as it relates to the work of other organizations that also conduct environmental research. PARTNERSHIPS WITH OTHER GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATIONS AND THE PRIVATE SECTOR Understanding and successfully addressing complex environmental problems requires extensive research over a broad range of scientific disciplines (see, for example, Box 4-1). EPA cannot (and should not) by itself develop and apply all the knowledge needed to discharge its mandate, because its resources are not sufficient and because other agencies, private companies, and universities, in the United States and abroad, are also engaged in information gathering and analysis.
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions FIGURE 4-1 Some of the many partners in the environmental research endeavor. Acronyms: NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture; NSF, National Science Foundation; DOD, Department of Defense; NIH, National Institutes of Health; NIEHS, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; HHS, Department of Health and Human Services; ATSDR, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; DOE, Department of Energy; NGOs, nongovernment organizations; DOI, Department of the Interior; USGS, U.S. Geological Survey
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions BOX 4-1 Global Climate Change: A Large-Scale, Complex Problem Requires an Interdisciplinary, Multi-Agency Approach Atmospheric scientists have recently concluded that changes in atmospheric composition, driven by agricultural and industrial emissions of ''greenhouse gases," (primarily carbon dioxide and methane) are almost certainly causing a measurable warming of the earth's surface and lower atmosphere (IPCC, 1996). Furthermore, these scientists have concluded that scattering of incident sunlight by atmospheric aerosols, due to industrial emissions and biomass burning, has counteracted some of the potential warming. Current programs (driven by acid deposition and human health concerns) aimed at reducing atmospheric aerosol levels could therefore result in global warming beyond that already observed (IPCC, 1996). As the climate warms, it may affect ecosystem viability, managed crop and forest yields, and human health. Changes could be induced both by shifts in mean temperatures and by the increases in extreme weather conditions (drought, flood, severe storms) that climate models predict will occur for many regions. Current models have demonstrated the key role that the hydrologic system plays in climate change and the dramatic impact that significant climate change may have on regional freshwater availability and quality. Exploratory studies have also suggested strong feedbacks between climate change and the ecology of many ecosystems (IPCC, 1996). While it is clear that global warming is occurring, the degree to which it will continue to occur, what actions are stimulating it, and what actions will ameliorate unfavorable change are all still uncertain. Scientists are also very unsure about the future ramifications of global warming. Possible scenarios include rising sea levels from melting polar ice caps leading to coastal flooding, changes in precipitation patterns leading to drought in some regions, and the loss of plant and/or animal species unable to migrate fast enough to follow shifting climate conditions into regions where the species would remain acclimated. Suggestions that climate change may also have a significant impact on the rate and mechanisms of disease spread also need to be investigated (IPCC, 1996). The processes that need to be investigated to adequately characterize global warming are far beyond the capabilities of EPA or any single agency. Rather, addressing the range of environmental problems related to global climate change will require an integrated, multi-agency effort. So far, the rate of global warming and global warming's impact on meteorological and hydrological systems as well as on terrestrial vegetation
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions have been the main focus of climate change research. In the future, more extensive research into environmental strategies and technology to lessen the emissions of greenhouse gases and to mitigate the undesirable hydrological, ecological, and health effects of climate change will be required. EPA can, and should, take a lead role in efforts to predict the ecological, health, and economic impacts of climate change and in the design of strategies to mitigate or remedy effects of climate change. One area, in particular, that EPA, together with other agencies, should consider is the establishment of a wide range of long term monitoring systems for key chemical, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, and health parameters. The data from these monitoring systems will need to be archived and analyzed to track the rate and impacts of climate change. Additional cooperative research efforts between EPA and other organizations could lead to more effective solutions and policies to address environmental problems. EPA must continue to be a significant partner in the national and international research effort, supporting and carrying out both core and problem-driven research as previously described. However, while EPA needs to retain in-house research capabilities, it should also learn from, use, and not needlessly duplicate research conducted or sponsored by other entities. Cooperating in research endeavors can provide all involved parties with a sense of working toward a common purpose as well as with access to more information. A collective effort can yield results far greater than the sum of individual, isolated endeavors. EPA has demonstrated that it can effect successful research collaborations, and it is encouraged to continue and expand such activities. Illustrative examples include the following: The establishment of a joint EPA-NSF competitive grants programs in water and watersheds; technology for a sustainable environment; and valuation studies for environmental policy. These programs highlight the need for broad interdisciplinary environmental research and take advantage of the NSF's engagement of the very broad scientific community and experience with peer review. The restoration of the Merrimack River, assisted by a grant and technical help from EPA as well as the involvement of the New Hampshire River Protection Program and other local organizations. Work done jointly with the USGS in support of the agencies' efforts in
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions water quality monitoring and assessment to provide a nationally consistent description of current water quality conditions for the nation's water resources. The establishment of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering Center for Waste Reduction Technologies, an industry/government research partnership whose focus includes research and technology development and its application to industrial processes to significantly reduce their impact on the environment. The establishment of the Health Effects Institute, a public-private partnership between the EPA and 28 manufacturers or marketers of motor vehicles or engines, whose focus is to provide decision makers, scientists, and the public with high-quality scientific information that helps to impartially answer key questions about health effects from motor vehicle emissions and other sources of air pollution. The co-leadership role of EPA in the North American Research Strategy for Tropospheric Ozone, a composite organization whose membership spans government, the utilities industry, and academia in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The program's primary mission is to coordinate and enhance scientific research and assessment of tropospheric ozone behavior, with the central programmatic goal of determining workable, efficient, and effective strategies for local and regional ozone control. The coordination of research activities and collaboration with other scientists from federal, state, and local agencies and other organizations demonstrated in EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP). There are many areas in which industry, academic institutions, and consulting firms should and do develop important solutions to environmental problems, such as industrial pollution prevention approaches and life-cycle analyses to reduce the creation of pollutants and unusable residues. In areas where the private sector can perform the bulk of the research, EPA should continue to have a minimal level of involvement. Through partnerships (including personnel exchanges), EPA can stay abreast of emerging technologies, evaluate new approaches, and provide a broad knowledge base. STRENGTHENING SCIENTIFIC CAPACITY AT EPA Recognizing that private sector interests do not always coincide with the full range of national interests, EPA should concentrate its own research and grants programs in areas where the private sector has little incentive to conduct research or develop better solutions to environmental problems. Examples include municipal wastewater and drinking water treatment, nonpoint-source pollution control, restoration of degraded ecosystems, and large-scale regional and global air pollution problems. No one company, industry, or municipality has a unique stake in these issues, making risk reduction research and evaluation of control options hard to justify to management or investors. These are areas of "public
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions good" for which a national agency like EPA should have lead responsibility and undertake the relevant research. Cooperative research ventures require the open sharing of both information and ideas. Reflecting appreciation for this, EPA has established and should continue a series of interdisciplinary workshops on topics relevant to environmental protection, effectively serving as a link between various research groups both inside and outside of EPA. Whether EPA has research results to share or not, EPA personnel can participate in such discussions to assess whether and, if so, how new information can be applied to EPA's immediate concerns. Also, EPA can assess which topics need more research and in turn can establish new priorities. These workshops promote a dynamic process for shaping environmental research priorities and thus contribute to protecting human health and the quality of our environment. For EPA to play its most productive role, however, it must stimulate the development of its own science capacity through proper incentives and realistic resource commitments to its research staff. (A second NRC committee, the Committee on Research and Peer Review at EPA, will consider these issues in much greater detail. See Chapter 1, "History and Purpose of this Study.") EPA researchers should be required to have knowledge of the basic processes and tools critical to environmental systems and have the ability to apply this knowledge to important environmental issues. In addition, the ability of EPA researchers to then articulate and transfer this knowledge to support the development and implementation of environmental policy is critical to the agency's mission. The committee recommends that EPA ensure research staff participation in interagency coordination efforts and in scientific meetings and conferences and provide incentives and rewards to those who seek out and work with their counterparts in other organizations. This cooperation must be accompanied by information that more clearly describes EPA's research program. To facilitate cooperation with others, as well as to improve its internal planning, EPA should compile an easily understood annual summary of its research strategy and programs. The report should be organized into broad categories of core and problem-driven research, with subcategories describing specific program areas. The absence of such a report makes it difficult to fully understand or evaluate EPA's research program. A financial commitment to core research, wherever it is conducted, is essential if it is to be sustained. A long-term financial commitment also will make possible the support of the required technical and administrative staff to effectively and efficiently manage the nation's environmental programs. The committee did not have the time or necessary data to fully determine the optimal magnitude of a desirable core program, nor was it asked to do so. However, based on many decades of experience and observation, the committee believes that there should be a roughly even balance between the core research program and problem-driven research projects.
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions IMPROVING COOPERATIVE DATA COLLECTION AND EVALUATION Environmental data is collected for a variety of purposes by many entities, generally for the purposes of describing the status of, and changes to, environmental resources over time, to confirm compliance with regulations, or to serve as an indicator of potential future change. In addition, environmental monitoring is required for the retrospective evaluation of the effectiveness of various past environmental policies and actions. Acquiring, archiving, and making environmental data easily accessible should be a priority for EPA. Increasing collaborations among EPA and other organizations that collect environmental data is essential for optimizing the use of existing data and identifying what types of additional data collection efforts are needed. Data collection is a large, difficult challenge, and EPA is commended for its efforts to coordinate its data collection activities with those of other agencies such as NIEHS, USGS, and other bureaus of the DOI, NOAA (including the National Weather Service), NASA, the National Cancer Institute, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control. Indeed, EPA is encouraged to press ahead with efforts to develop a national environmental monitoring program working with the Office of Science and Technology Policy and other agencies. Monitoring databases provide histories of environmental change and can be examined to ascertain the statistical relationships between human activities and environmental responses, between regulations and pollutant types and inputs, and between human responses and different types of incentives or disincentives designed to influence voluntary actions affecting the environment. Monitoring for retrospective evaluation seeks to find effects by detecting changes in the status and condition of some organism, population, or community. It does not assume any knowledge of cause-effect relationships, although the intention is usually to establish a cause if an effect is found. Through monitoring and retrospective evaluations, EPA, other federal agencies, the Congress, and the public can gain insight into improved ways to achieve environmental goals. This process promotes a shift from a static view of regulations to a dynamic, evolving view that regulations have a finite lifetime and are in need of periodic reassessment. Monitoring and retrospective evaluation of environmental policies can be most effectively done via partnerships between EPA and other organizations, whose missions complement or overlap that of EPA's. EPA should initiate a retrospective monitoring and evaluation program making sure to take maximum advantage of existing data bases. A good example of a potentially useful retrospective analysis might be an assessment of the relationship between wastewater treatment and downstream water quality changes. Other retrospective studies could assess pesticide contaminant levels in ground water as related to agricultural
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions BOX 4-2 Long-Term Studies Lead to Understanding of Complex Interactions1 The results of two long-term environmental studies (Schindler et al., 1996; Yan et al., 1996) published in Nature in 1996 have shown that the penetration of lake waters by harmful ultraviolet radiation is related to climate warming and acid rain, as well as to depletion of stratospheric ozone. The interactions between these environmental stresses are complex, and these studies are of exceptional interest because environmental problems are seldom subjected to this sort of analysis (Tilman, 1989). Schindler et al. added sulfuric acid to lakes in the Experimental Lakes Area of northwestern Ontario that they had been studying and in some cases manipulating for two decades. They showed that both acid levels and climate warming over the past 20 years have led in different and complex ways to declines in dissolved organic carbon (DOC) compounds in lake waters. DOCs absorb solar radiation, including UV-B, and their decline has permitted radiation to penetrate much deeper into the water. The effect was particularly evident in clear, shallow lakes, which are common in the boreal zone (the huge northern temperate zone of coniferous forests) and even more so in arctic and alpine regions, and it outweighed the effect of ozone depletion in exposing aquatic organisms to damage by UV-B radiation. Schindler and colleagues noted further that in such lakes some of the biological damage attributed to acid deposition may instead have been caused by UV-B exposure. In the second long-term study, Yan et al. monitored the ecological conditions of Swan Lake in northern Ontario. The lake has been subjected to severe atmospheric deposition of sulfur from smelter fumes from nearby copper and nickel mines, and substantial amounts of sulfur have been stored in sediments. During a two-year drought in 1986 and 1987, the water level dropped considerably so that the lake's surface area shrank by 18%. This led to oxidation of the sulfur compounds contained in the uppermost layer of exposed near-shore sediments to sulphuric acid. In the subsequent wet year, the acid washed into the lake and lowered its pH greatly, from 5.8 before the drought to 4.5 in the year after. DOC declined by a factor of three, in part directly by acidification and in part by settling out after aggregation with sedimentary aluminum released by the acidification. Because of the decline in DOC, the depth of the lake exposed to at least 1% of surface UV-B radiation increased from 1.8 m in 1987 to 5.6 m in 1988, corresponding to 94% of lake volume. These studies illustrate that three anthropogenic stresses on the environment—climate warming, acid deposition, and ozone depletion—are 1 Adapted from Gorham, 1996.
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions linked to one another through their influence in deepening the penetration of UV-B radiation into clear-water lakes. It is likely that this influence will increase as ozone depletion worsens, climate continues to warm, and sulfur compounds, stored in lake sediments and wetland peats, oxidize in response to falling water tables. Clearly, the physical, chemical, and biological processes of diverse environmental impacts are complex and inextricably linked to one another, requiring an integrated, whole-ecosystem approach to their study. Long-term investigations, often lasting decades, are necessary to enhance understanding of such complicated environmental problems. management practices or review a wetland restoration site to judge the degree to which restoration was successful. A great challenge remains in the selection of appropriate indicators useful for monitoring ecosystems. A recently initiated NRC study on this topic, sponsored by EPA, should assist EPA and others in determining what aspects of environmental conditions and trends should be monitored for various purposes, what is known about successful biological indicators, what aspects of ecosystems have been particularly difficult to develop useful indicators for, and where research is most likely to yield useful results. Another difficult challenge related to environmental monitoring where EPA could play a major role is in the development of more comprehensive models of integrated environmental systems. The development of integrated environmental models in conjunction with data collected from strategically designed monitoring networks will lead to more cost-effective multi-media approaches for managing and sustaining environmental quality. Long-term ecological studies are useful for developing such models and are essential for understanding the complex interactions within ecosystems (see Box 4-2). In summary, it is essential that EPA maintain a research staff, but it is also essential that this staff focus on research areas not already being extensively investigated by others. Cooperation with other organizations through joint research programs, grant programs, sponsorship of workshops, joint collection and evaluation of data, and other efforts is essential so that EPA and the nation can achieve maximum value from the agency's research investments.
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