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Letter: EPA internship was education in global environment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2009 - As an Environmental Studies major (Social sciences track -- Got to keep my sanity as a prototypical WashU pre-med), it was always my dream to someday intern or work for the Environmental Protection Agency. I had no idea I would get the opportunity right after freshman year.

Interning at the EPA this summer, I learned the nuts and bolts of how our government handles broad issues such as pollution and globalization. In my environmental studies classes, we had discussed the impacts of these issues, but never specifically how the issues themselves are addressed.

One topic that really interested me in class was how environmentalism in the United States can cause problems in third world countries. When environmental laws are passed in the United States that tighten regulations or outlaw harmful processes, manufacturing companies often move production to poor countries rather than clean up their manufacturing processes. As a result, poor people bear a disproportionate burden of landfills, radioactive material and untreated wastewater, among other environmental hazards. The people who are most disenfranchised and least able to protect themselves are most likely to be exploited. This is why it is so crucial to strengthen and enforce the environmental laws in developing countries especially.

That's where the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance comes in. A large part of what my supervisor Cheryl Wasserman's job entailed was to give training sessions in other countries to strengthen the enforcement of environmental laws, and to make sure corporations complied with them. Under the Central America Free Trade Agreement-Dominican Republic, several environmental provisions took effect in Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. For every mine, dam, hotel or any major project that is proposed, an Environmental Impact Assessment reviews the impacts and alternatives to a project. During the training sessions, people who work at the EPA equivalents in these countries are trained to perform EIA reviews.

Ideally, when countries around the world have environmental laws that are enforced and complied with, American corporations won't be able to externalize production to poorer areas, and low socio-economic status won't preclude access to basic resources like clean water and responsible waste management.

I find it ironic that the U.S. instructs foreign countries on how to implement environmental enforcement programs while simultaneously externalizing toxic waste and being a stumbling block for international environmental negotiations such as the Kyoto protocol. Although I was initially concerned about the unintended side affects of environmentalism in the U.S., interning at the EPA showed me how strengthening enforcement and compliance programs around the world addresses these problems.

Globalization and externalization of production make "environmentalism" affect so much more than just the natural environment. It's about the infrastructure of

governments, human rights, health, the economy, and the conditions in which people around the world live. The U.S. would do well to consider these factors as we implement and enforce our own environmental policies.