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Outcome-Based Decision Making For Environmental Protection—or When More is More

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Geoff Rabinowitz
July 11, 2019

As civilizations advance, so do the complexities of their problems. One example of this is the quality of surface water. In the United States, advances were made in the conveyance of wastewater during the 19th century where wastewater could be more centrally collected and discharged to surface waters, such as a river. The concept was to get the waste away from the local population, which, of course, unintentionally made it the problem of the downstream population.

This, unfortunately, led to an increase of many water born diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever, as discussed in Water Quality Evolution. Further, industrial discharges into surfaces waters caused extreme adverse impacts on water quality, aquatic animals, drinking water sources, recreation, etc. This resulted in a series of regulations being created at the federal, state and local levels. Federally, this includes the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the 1972 amendments known as the “Clean Water” and the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act.

The focus was to control point source discharges of pollution under what is termed the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).  The NPDES program is iterative in nature, meaning it continuously becomes more and more focused. This also means that, since its inception, the most significant improvements in water quality (reduction of pollutants) have been made. This can anecdotally be seen by a lack of rivers spontaneously catching on fire. This also means that environmental protection agencies, industries, advocacy groups, etc., have to spend more time, effort and money on actions that have incrementally smaller and smaller environmental returns. 

However, to get to the remaining aspects of point-source discharge, a higher level of specificity is required. This level of detail can mire down the process or, rather, the outcomes. Studies take longer to conduct, permits take longer to write and enforcement actions become far more complex. An example of the increased proficiency in modeling water quality impacts is how adverse impacts from a pollutant can now be quantified at levels below approved analytical detection limits. Stated differently, it can be determined that pollutant A is impactful at a concentration of 1 Part per Billion (PPB) but our ability to analytically measure pollutant A only measures down to 10PPB.

Because of this, a broad-based cost-benefit analysis should be continually conducted to assess outcomes as compared to the effort. As an example, writing a water quality permit that effectively removes 100 percent of the concentration level of pollutant B from a given facility may take 500 hours of high-level complex analysis. However, that same 500 hours may also result in the removal of 95 percent of pollutant B from 5 facilities because each one of those water quality permits only takes 100 hours to complete. This begins to frame the equation necessary to evaluate the overall impact an agency can accomplish with fixed resources. Theoretically speaking, if the total potential discharge of facility 1 is one billion gallons a year and the cumulative discharge of facilities 2-6 is 3 billion gallons a year, with equal concentrations of 5ml/l of pollutant B, the 95 percent approach equates into the removal of 2.85 times more of the pollutant than getting the first permit perfect.

This same approach can be applied to rule development and enforcement efforts across all environmental media. If the end goal of environmental programs is to minimize (once upon a time it was to eliminate all polluted discharges but we’ve since discovered that is simply not a viable outcome) the adverse impact on the environment; natural resources and, consequently, human health from pollution; I suggest that a more pragmatic approach to reducing the maximum amount of pollution from all sources is a more appropriate use of environmental agencies’ limited resources.

I clearly recognize that not all parties agree with this approach: some advocacy groups pursue legal actions to challenge rules and permits because they are not meeting that 100 percent level. This being stated, I believe most variables in this equation share the common goal of maximizing the beneficial aspects of environmental protection. To this end, regulatory agencies should honestly and routinely asses their processes to determine if they are focusing on getting the best output from a single permit and/or the best outcome from all the rules and permits combined.

Environmental protection under the framework of the CWA was, and is, meant to be an iterative process; iteration of the solutions should follow along the same pathway. I am not suggesting we institute the old adage of, “Good enough for government work,” but, rather, not let the pursuit of exactness cloud our view of broader outcomes. It is my hope that this article spurs substantive debate and lively discourse on all aspects of environmental protection so that we may continue making tangible improvements to mitigate adverse anthropogenic impacts.   

Author: Mr. Rabinowitz is completing his Doctorate in Public Administration from Valdosta State University. He has over 15 years of experience working for multiple federal, state and local agencies in environmental protection. He received his MS in Executive Management from the Florida State University and BSs in Marine Biology and Ecology from the Florida Institute of Technology. Please contact him at [email protected]



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