The EPA is working with six major U.S. industries to develop a new “common sense” approach to environmental regulation that seeks to reduce pollution “industry by industry” rather than “pollutant by pollutant.”

Dubbed the “Common Sense Initiative,” the agency’s goal is to achieve greater environmental protection at less cost by addressing all the pollution sources for a particular industry — air, water, solid wastes and others — as a package, rather than as separate issues.

“When our country began to pass environmental laws starting in the early ’70s, we did it issue by issue, crisis by crisis,” EPA Administrator Carol Browner said in announcing the initiative earlier this year. “Too often, instead of preventing pollution, we simply shuffled and shifted pollution from one place to another.”

The new concept represents a sharp departure from the past 25 years during which time 16 major environmental laws, overseen by 74 Congressional committees and subcommittees, have been written to address specific issues.

Sometimes concerned about the lack of implementation, Congress wrote laws to “spell out every detail of not only what EPA must do but also what business must do,” Browner said. “The average length of an environmental law grew from 50 pages to 400 pages.”

Not only did the laws take away industry flexibility, but they were often narrowly written to address specific types of problems, such as air pollution or water pollution, and often failed to resolve other related environmental problems. Laws written to control air pollution, for example, often do not address impacts of those pollutants on aquatic systems, such as the Chesapeake Bay.

“It will take a new generation of environmental protection to meet the challenges of the next 25 years,” Browner said. “The Common Sense Initiative is the start of a fundamentally new way of protecting our environment.”

For each of the six pilot industries participating in the initiative, a team of industry executives, environmental leaders, government officials, and labor and environmental justice representatives has been convened to examine all aspects of environmental regulation as it affects the industry.

The hope is that by bringing frequently adversarial groups together, consensus can be reached on ways to set cleaner goals for the industries while allowing them greater flexibility to achieve those targets than is the case now. The recommendations are to tailor requirements to the way a specific industry works in order to achieve better results, and to emphasize pollution prevention over pollution control.

The industries involved include auto manufacturing, computers and electronics, iron and steel, metal finishing and plating, petroleum refining, and printing.

Together, they employ almost 4 million workers, and represent nearly 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. In 1992, they reported releases of 395 million pounds of toxic substances, 12.4 percent of all reported emissions nationwide. As a group, they spent more than $8.2 billion on compliance with environmental laws in 1992.

“All too often, we’ve seen too little environmental protection at too high a price,” Browner said.

Teams are to make recommendations by next summer. For each industry, the teams will examine six areas:

  • Regulation. Review regulations for opportunities to get better environmental results at less cost. Improve new rules through increased coordination.
  • Pollution prevention. Actively promote pollution prevention as a standard business practice and a central ethic of environmental protection.
  • Reporting. Make it easier to provide, use and publicly disseminate relevant pollution and environmental information.
  • Compliance. Assist companies that seek to obey and exceed legal requirements while consistently enforcing the law against those that don’t.
  • Permitting. Change permitting so that it works more efficiently, encourages innovation and creates more opportunities for public participation.
  • Environmental technology. Give industry the incentives and flexibility to develop innovative technologies that meet and exceed environmental standards while cutting costs.

EPA officials say the shift in direction is likely to take years, and elements of the proposal will require congressional action. But some parts of the plan could be implemented within a year, the officials added.