The NRC has looked in depth at the use of the RA/RM framework as a decision-making tool at EPA.2 This study was to build on that in answering these four key questions. EPA has undertaken several sustainability initiatives and can claim success in developing processes leading toward a more sustainable future. EPA has established various programs incorporating sustainability at the program office and regional level and has adopted a sustainability research plan and highlighted sustainability in its strategic plan for 2011–2015; however, the agency recognizes that to obtain the benefits of using sustainability as a process and as a goal, it needs to further improve and institutionalize sustainability. Paul Anastas, the assistant administrator for research and development at EPA, stated, “Sustainability is our true north. The work that we do—the research, the assessments, the policy development—is part of ensuring that we have a sustainable society; a sustainable civilization.”3
The growing identification of sustainability as both a process and a goal to ensure long-term human well-being is based on four converging drivers. The first is the recognition that current approaches aimed at decreasing existing risks, however successful, are not capable of avoiding the complex problems in the United States and globally that threaten the planet’s critical natural resources and put current and future human generations at risk, including population growth, the widening gaps between the rich and the poor, depletion of finite natural resources, biodiversity loss, climate change, and disruption of nutrient cycles. Second, sophisticated tools are increasingly available to address cross-cutting, complex, and challenging issues that go beyond the current approach, which is, risk management of major threats. Third, sustainability is being used by international organizations as a common approach to address the three sustainability pillars (social, environmental, and economic issues) in agreements in which the United States is an active participant. Finally, the potential economic value of sustainability to the United States is recognized to not merely decrease environmental risks but also to optimize the social and economic benefits of environmental protection.
To accomplish its task of answering the four key questions posed by EPA, the committee held meetings in December 2010 and February 2011 and conducted weekly conference calls to discuss the report draft. The February meeting was a weeklong intensive session, which included extensive review and discussion of relevant literature, deliberation, and drafting of the report. In addition, data-gathering sessions that were open to the public were held during both meetings, where the committee heard from EPA officials, state-level environmental agencies, industry,
2 NRC (National Research Council). 1983. Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
3 Anastas, P. 2010. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science and Technology March 10, 2010 [online]. Available: http://www.epa.gov/ocirpage/hearings/testimony/111_2009_2010/2010_0310_pa.pdf [accessed Apr. 19, 2011].