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Q&A with Stafford: Toward a cleaner world

Stafford delivers the Distinguished Faculty Lecture. Following her delivery of the College’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture on Oct. 8, Sarah Stafford responded to the following questions from the W&M News. —Ed.

W&M News: How did you become involved in studying hazardous-waste issues for the EPA?

Stafford: I was always interested in the environment. When I was in college, I was not sure exactly what aspect I was going to go into. I liked the idea of doing public-policy work. I would say my specialty is regulation and enforcement, and I just have focused on environmental regulation.

W&M News: Why has your research concentrated on issues involving hazardous wastes?

Stafford: Hazardous waste is my primary area of interest. I know it the best in terms of the data sources, and I think one of the keys to doing this work well is making sure you understand what is in the data, because when you use government sources, if you’re not clear on what is in there it can be very misleading. I know exactly what my data means. I think that can be an issue for other people who don’t know their data as well. They can kind of come to conclusions that really aren’t as accurate.

W&M News: You’ve been at William and Mary for nine years. Have you involved students in your research?

Stafford: I haven’t had any students who have worked with me as co-authors, but I’ve had a number of students who have worked with me during the past four years who have done data manipulation and data analysis for me. They mostly have been involved in the audit research: it required a lot of data work. Students had to go through the audit cases then code it into the database.

W&M News: Do you have a “green streak” that you suppressed during your lecture?

Stafford: I try to be objective as possible, which makes it easier for me to evaluate EPA programs in terms of how well they are fulfilling their mission. If I don’t, I think too much about whether they have the right mission. If I were to step out of my shoes as a researcher and respond to the questions, “Do I think we need to be doing more than we are doing now?” or “Do I think we need additional legislation passed?” my answer would be “Yes!’ I don’t want regulation for the sake of regulation. For example, we should have higher fuel-emission standards. It is ridiculous that we don’t. We’ve treaded water on that. There are other places where we should have been slowly tightening controls; instead, we’re rolling back controls. About two weeks ago, the EPA changed its standard on soot regulation. Nearly every scientist who looked at the data and the benefits that would come from tightening regulations said, “Here’s the things you should do.” The EPA ignored some of those.

W&M News: Is the EPA under political pressure?

Stafford: The EPA is very susceptible to political pressure. Funding is the key. The way to decrease the amount of environmental protection is to not fund the EPA so it does not have the money to enforce the regulations. You see big swings from administration to administration. Clinton passed some restrictions essentially allowing for roadless areas to stay roadless. When the Bush administration came in, there was a lawsuit against that, and the administration did not contest it. The courts have since ruled that there was no right to do that.

Today, you see this rolling back of some things that more environmentally protective administrations have done. Some of it also is coming from Congress. If Congress is not reauthorizing any acts, there will not be any movement. You can see the decrease in resources going to enforcement. Enforcement has taken a hit, and some of the states have taken issue with that.

W&M News:
Recently you attended the business school’s screening of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” What was your reaction to that documentary?

Stafford: It clearly had a point to make, and it made that point. There were some areas where, were I to use it in class, I would supplement on both sides of the argument. I thought the film did a nice job of getting the point across of why we did not see movement on the initiative. The way our public policy works allows for things to falter. You have to establish these credible deadlines and tell industry you’re going to make it meet them. If you ever let industry slide on one, it can use that as an excuse. It’s the same thing as with your kids. If you don’t follow through on your threats, they come to understand that there really isn’t any punishment. Initially when there were these tight controls that California was setting, people thought how are we going to do this; they developed new technology. In the end, they didn’t have to go through with it. You need pressure coming from government.

W&M News: Can you elaborate on your statement that we need an environmentalist in every boardroom?

Stafford: I meant that statement to be a caveat. Sometimes you come away from a discussion of corporate environmental responsibility thinking, “This is the wave of the future, so let’s put all of our eggs in this basket.” I think we need to add things onto our program but at the core we need to have this solid level of mandatory requirement and enforcement. Once we get that established—and I think we’re pretty close—we just need to maintain it. To achieve levels beyond compliance, we then go to this level of corporate environmental responsibility.. That is on the margin where we get additional environmental quality, especially in a political climate that might make it difficult to get it any other way. We can’t forget that we cannot substitute for the old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approach. The statement an environmentalist in every boardroom plays back to the title of the lecture. We probably cannot get all of them, but we just need one.