Past Seminar

Managing Problems That Won't Go Away: RFF First Wednesday Seminar

Jun 1, 2005

About the Event

Managing Problems That Won't Go Away
RFF First Wednesday Seminar
June 1, 2005

Setting a deadline to meet a standard that protects human health and the environment is the basic design philosophy for many environmental regulatory programs. This philosophy works well when deadlines are not far in the future and offending emissions can be attenuated by technology or policy. But for issues like Yucca Mountain, cleanup of Department of Energy nuclear production facilities, and Superfund, these conditions are not always present. This seminar explores the pitfalls encountered when applying familiar regulatory tools to these problems and alternative approaches to policy design.

Robert W. Fri​, visiting scholar at RFF and former deputy administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, moderates a discussion featuring Richard A. Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Kate Probst, senior fellow and director, Risk, Resource, and Environmental Management Division, RFF; and Milton Russell, senior fellow at the Joint Institute for Energy and Environment, University of Tennessee.

Videos of this First Wednesday Seminar and commentary follows below.

Event Video



Molly Macauley
Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future




Robert W. Fri
Visiting Scholar, Resources for the Future



Milton Russell
Senior Fellow, Joint Institute for Energy and Environment
University of Tennessee



Kate Probst 
Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future



Richard A. Meserve
President, Carnegie Institution



Q & A Session



Short-Term Solutions: Short-Sighted for Long-Term Eco-Problems

Washington operates on short-term time frames, punctuated by Congressional calendars and election cycles. Yet some situations--such as Superfund site cleanup, spent nuclear fuel disposal, and remediation of Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear production facilities--require analysis and planning for decades or even centuries. At an RFF First Wednesday seminar June 1, a panel of experts discussed the options and trade-offs that policymakers confront when facing such dilemmas.

Titled "Environmental Problems That Won't Go Away," the seminar was moderated by RFF Visiting Scholar Robert Fri, a former deputy administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and RFF president. In his opening remarks, Fri stated that the right solution to these problems is not always readily apparent or easy or quick to implement, citing EPA's 20-year struggle to create a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Panelist Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution, picked up this example in his remarks. "The modeling would suggest that the peak dose from Yucca Mountain would occur 300,000 years in the future," he noted. Existing judicial and regulatory systems are simply not designed to accommodate that timescale or to allow for flexibility down the road.

The basic dilemma with the legislative regulatory framework is that "it envisions that right at the outset one will define a precise, long-term solution that is going to be adequate to deal with the problem," Meserve said. "The real world doesn't allow that certainty."

Kate Probst, a senior fellow at RFF and an expert on Superfund issues, pointed out that while site cleanup is a problem for both nuclear waste and Superfund, a key difference between the two is that the Superfund law has no specific deadlines for site cleanup. "The only deadline in the statute was that EPA had to identify the 400 worst sites in the early '80s when the law was passed. This law gives tremendous flexibility to the agency," she said, including no deadlines or direction. The difficulty, according to Probst, was that EPA underestimated both the time required and the technical skills needed to clean up a site. In many cases, contamination can be contained, but will nonetheless remain for decades if not hundreds of years in some situations.

Probst argued that EPA needs to be honest with people who live near Superfund sites about a cleanup project's timeline and progress, and provide assurances that an institution that will be around to monitor contamination at these sites. That institution needs authority and credibility, but also some kind of interim deadlines combined with a degree of flexibility to account for what cannot be known at the outset.

Milton Russell, senior fellow at the Joint Institute for Energy and Environment, University of Tennessee, echoed Probst on challenges for DOE site remediation, which he characterized as "perhaps the largest, most complex environmental cleanup in history." Noting there had been some success in cleanup, he said other sites are likely to be forever contaminated and can only be contained. He also pointed out that long-term flexibility for solving these problems must extend beyond existing policy to include possible changes in risk, as well as the value placed on and the impact of risks. He wondered if it was even appropriate for policymakers in this generation to try and lock in standards for future generations, not knowing what changes may arise in the future or who the burden of stewardship would be shared among at that time.

"We want to distribute the burden equitably, both among people living today and between us and those who will come after us," he remarked. "We want to protect future generations from some specific, foreseeable potential outcomes..and we want to prepare for change."

Though the situations are different, the panelists' comments indicate that there is a class of these long-term, difficult-to-solve problems, Fri concluded. "The hazard exists...there is not at least easily or economically available technology that will quickly morph the contaminant involved into some benign substance...the hazard must be managed over a very long period," he commented. "It's a problem of multiple generations' (posing) some serious challenges for current practices in environmental regulation."

"Action is required whether a standard is met or not. We can't do nothing," Fri concluded. "We like deadlines, but a deadline for 'solving the problem' once and for all may not mean anything in the case of these very long-lived issues. Our political and regulatory institutions must adapt to new information over very long periods of time."



  • Katherine N. Probst, Senior Fellow