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Virginia’s Free-Market Environmentalist

Thursday, January 1, 1998

In environmental circles, mere mention of Becky Norton Dunlop’s name always gets a strong reaction. "She’s in with the far Right," says Daniel Barry of the Environmental Working Group. The Washington Post says that Virginia’s top official for environmental protection "is no tree-hugging greenie. [She’s] more James Watt than Al Gore, more gun club than Sierra Club."

In fact, the free-market environmentalist has become so controversial that James Gilmore, the conservative Republican governor-elect of Virginia, promised during his campaign that, if elected, he would not reappoint her as head of the secretariat for environmental protection and natural resources. But as Dunlop’s term winds down, she leaves behind a highly successful model of how a state can encourage a safe and clean environment without sacrificing freedom or economic growth.

When Republican governor George Allen took office in 1994, he appointed Dunlop to head the departments responsible for environmental protection, natural resources, and recreation. Over the next four years, she compiled a legacy of cleaner air, cleaner water, fewer hazardous sites, more volunteerism in the parks, and an improved relationship between business and state regulators. In a system of environmental protection that relies heavily upon cooperation between the regulators and the regulated, the last achievement cannot be emphasized enough.

Dunlop first earned the ire of the green movement during the Reagan administration, when she served first as the number-three official at the U.S. Department of the Interior and later as the Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. There she was instrumental in developing the policy that led to President Reagan’s Executive Order 12630, which requires federal agencies to determine whether any of their actions represents a "taking" of property from its owners. If so, the U.S. Constitution requires the government to compensate owners for their losses. Green groups vigorously oppose compensating owners.

Now as then, Dunlop does not flinch from applying conservative principles, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment. Her actions threaten the core principles of green activists, many of whom believe the only way to avoid a polluted planet is through heavy-handed regulation and collectivist economic policy. The Washington Post has tried to blame her for the pollution caused by a major Virginia hog producer, even though her hands were tied by a consent decree the producer had signed with the previous (Democratic) administration.

Cleaner Air

In the early 1990s, Richmond’s air quality had deteriorated to the point that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified the city as a "moderate non-attainment" area. This means that its air pollution exceeded federal safety standards too frequently. The air pollution of Northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., was classified as "serious non-attainment." Under the traditional, adversarial model of pollution control, the state would impose strict controls and fines without serious regard to their economic costs. Under Dunlop, Virginia aggressively implemented a more cooperative approach to environmental protection that finds little favor with the EPA.

It worked. The air quality has improved, and Richmond now qualifies for re-designation as "in attainment" with federal law. State officials point out that they now "have pretty clean air in Virginia." But cleaning it up and keeping it clean has been an enormous challenge. The state’s highest priority was to improve air quality in the summers, when for a few days each year, heat and other weather factors threaten to cause unhealthy levels of a pollutant called ozone.

This situation is a temporary phenomenon greatly affected by auto emissions. Dunlop realized that the key to healthy air during the summer is to reduce the pollution from autos on those few days a year when weather conditions conspired to create unhealthy air. So she devised a new solution that she hoped would work better and is consistent with her philosophy of cooperative government.

Last July, Virginia’s approach was put to the test. For several days, Richmond’s air was declared "Code Red" and in danger of reaching what EPA considers unhealthy levels—ozone levels exceeding 0.12 parts per million (ppm). This situation threatened the city’s bid to be re-designated as "in attainment." Virginia officials alerted large businesses in the area to the problem and activated a network they had in place for just such a situation. The state urged companies to ask their workers to telecommute. They also encouraged car pooling and other measures that would reduce the amount of vehicle traffic on Richmond’s roads. With the cooperation of business, traffic was extremely light on those days.

Virginia also suspended all road work in the area by the state transportation department, because this work increases traffic congestion and therefore car emissions. The result was that Richmond avoided violating ozone levels and protected its residents’ health without penalizing businesses.

In the four years since Dunlop assumed responsibility for air quality in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it has improved immensely. Since 1994, Virginia exceeded federal air safety standards only 29 times anywhere in the state. Not a single monitoring station violated the Clean Air Act’s prohibition against more than three so-called exceedances within the last three years. By contrast, in the four years before Dunlop’s arrival, the monitoring stations recorded 46 exceedances all over the state, and from 1991 to 1993 30 percent of them recorded violations of the Clean Air Act.

Preventing Pollution

Another voluntary program has proved successful in preventing pollution. Officials at Dunlop’s Department of Environmental Quality regularly visit factories to help them reduce their emissions while saving money. They inspect the facilities, then devise a voluntary plan of how the company could improve its operations. The plan suggests what the company should do, how much it will cost, and estimates how much the agency thinks the changes may save the company.

Savings attributable to the program cannot always be quantified because some improvements may be attributable to other production changes. But where they can be measured, the results demonstrate the power of the voluntary approach.

One company located on the Dan River made changes to its processes after working with Dunlop’s staff. According to Bill Sarnecky, a chemical engineer with the state, "The quality of the river has improved as a direct result of the change," improving biological conditions in the river.

Dan River Mills, like other textile plants, owns high-speed machines that run fabric through for printing colors and other processes. To keep the fabric from bunching, the plant stiffens the fabric with polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), which is later washed out of the material. PVA is more environmentally-friendly than starch, the most popular "sizing agent," but it harms aquatic life by taking oxygen out of the river. The chemical also releases methanol into the air when it’s boiled for the first time. The company had no legal obligation to reduce its discharges of PVA, but Virginia showed it how to save money by using a "reverse osmosis unit," which runs the plant’s wastewater through a membrane to capture pollutants like PVA before discharge.

Although they are very expensive, the machines can capture PVA for reuse, reducing the need for costly virgin PVA. In addition to saving money on virgin PVA and reducing water pollution, the company cut its airborne emissions because recycled PVA contains no methanol. Like many other Virginia firms, Dan River Mills has proven that good environmentalism can also be sound business that helps the bottom line.

Cleaner Water

Virginia’s rivers are now among the cleanest in the nation. According to EPA documents, the water quality in more than 90 percent of Virginia’s rivers is good, compared to 64 percent nationwide. Last month, an independent review panel released the results of an in-depth examination of Virginia’s water quality. They concluded that the commonwealth’s surface water program and its program to control water pollution from industrial sources are both models for the rest of the nation and recommended they be brought to the attention of other states.

Alan Moghissi, the chairman of the review panel and a respected scientist who regularly conducts federal reviews of environmental technologies, says of Virginia, "They have one of the best [water quality] monitoring systems in place." Dunlop is responsible for this. She dramatically increased the number of water-quality monitoring stations and improved the system of collecting pollution data so that regulators are armed with information much more quickly than before.

Dunlop’s most controversial move as the Secretary of Natural Resources was also instrumental in improving water quality. She reorganized and decentralized the Department of Environmental Quality to create "one-stop" regional offices for regulatory compliance with state environmental policies. This move riled many within the department and the environmental community because many of the state’s regulatory jobs were moved from headquarters out to the regions. But these very changes made regulators more accessible to those they regulate. More importantly, decisionmaking became more sensitive to the problems that regulators encounter. In Moghissi’s view, there is "ample evidence to demonstrate that [water] quality has improved in the last four years. The organizational change is the primary reason for her success. She brought the regulators close to the people. People abide more by the rules and they are happier doing so. That, to me, is the dominant reason the water quality has improved."

Difference of Philosophy

Virginia’s emphasis on cooperation has not only improved its air and water quality, but also helped increase volunteerism at its parks. For the first time in the state’s history, volunteers spent more than a 100,000 hours last year assisting visitors and cleaning up parks and trails. As Kathleen Lawrence, the director of Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, says, "Without the volunteers, the trails would accumulate litter until the parks closed for the season. These volunteers work to clean the trails from spring through fall. As important, when people volunteer, they take ownership and watch out for things going on in the parks. The parks are a better experience for visitors as a result."

Dunlop believes in results-oriented environmentalism. The federal EPA levies stiff fines on polluters and then sends the money collected to the federal treasury. In contrast, Virginia signs consent decrees with environmental "bad actors" that compel violators to reinvest fines in environmental improvement. Dunlop also doesn’t shrink from targeting government entities, which are often among the worst polluters. Says Rob Gordon, the executive director of a market-oriented conservation group called the National Wilderness Institute, "Becky Dunlop is the first government official to break with the wage-and-price-control mentality. Her goal is to bring about real environmental improvements, not to fatten the bureaucracy or state coffers."

Her goal also is to encourage economic growth. If the economy stagnates, so does interest in environmental protection. Studies have shown that wealthier nations have less pollution. As she is quick to point out, rising living standards and economic growth can actually improve the environment. She notes that when new car purchases go up, air pollution goes down because newer cars are far less polluting than the older cars they replace. Of course, a healthy economy also improves their overall quality of life.

The EPA Lauds Virginia

Virginia’s approach works. Mike McCabe, the EPA regional administrator who oversees Virginia, has resisted the state’s approach because it runs counter to the agency’s preference for stricter controls, heavy fines, and aggressive enforcement to combat pollution. Yet he reluctantly admitted earlier this year on the PBS show TechnoPolitics that over the last five years "Virginia has been a good partner in cleaning up the environment." Dunlop has shown that innovative ways to protect the environment work. And they do so without putting government at odds with business. Her methods remain controversial, but as McCabe was forced to admit, her results are not.