WASHINGTON - ``Unifying'' federal environmental law would combine at least six major statutes into one and eliminate the constant doubt of how to balance America's health considerations against its economic ones, a leading environmentalist told a National Environmental Policy Institute audience April 24. Paul Portney, president of the Washington-based Resources for the Future think tank, argued that conflicting missions of these six laws - the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the most recent, the Clean Drinking Water Act - translate into an enforcement morass.
Another panelist, Sierra Club Chairman Michael McCloskey, contended the current Repub-lican-controlled Congress ``does not seem well-suited to deal with the idea of environmental reform in a judicious way.''
Portney and McCloskey were the most outspoken on the topic of ``Unifying Environmental Law: Is Now the Time?'' sponsored by the nonprofit NEPI as part of its Environment '96 seminar series. Chaired by Don Ritter, a former Republican congressman from Florida, NEPI sponsors seminars and funds academic fellowships in environmental studies.
Portney pointed to contradictions resulting from too many laws: The actual act of balancing health considerations against economics is allowable under the Clean Air Act, he said, but prohibited under the Resource Conser-vation and Recovery Act.
Portney noted a major barrier to the concept is how to divide current pollution regulation responsibilities between federal and local interests. Portney suggested that the important aspects of the federal clean air and water acts should remain under federal jurisdiction, but local governments should be allowed review of drinking water standards.
Portney's organization has drafted language for a proposed law, but no unifying environmental legislation has been filed in Congress this session.
Advantages of unification include streamlining data gathering and reporting of polluters, reducing paperwork, providing the means for having one inspector review the pollution output of an entire company and pollution prevention in general, according to panelists.
Other panelists included Washington lawyer C. Boyden Gray, former counsel to President George Bush and now active in environmental and regulatory reform issues; and David Ziegele, director of the statutory integration project at the Environmental Protection Agency.
McCloskey noted several problems with the unifying concept, especially any proposal that would combine all federal environmental permit programs into one document. ``Putting everything under one permit would mean you would have trouble finding people capable of handling enforcement in a variety of areas.''
Further, a unified federal law would be unmanageable because the scope of environmental legislation ``is simply too big and complex,'' he said.
``Not all those permitted would come out with the same rights,'' McCloskey said.