Environmental law professor contributes to national report on sustainability for EPA

Widener Law Distinguished Professor John C. Dernbach has contributed to a new report from the National Research Council that presents a framework for incorporating sustainability into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s principles and decision-making. It was requested by the EPA and is intended to help the agency better assess the social, environmental, and economic impacts of various options as it goes forward.

The report, “Sustainability and the U.S. EPA,” was released Tuesday, Aug. 2. It is the work of the Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a 12-member group that includes Dernbach. He teaches on Widener’s Harrisburg, Pa. campus and began his work with the committee in December.

The report’s recommended sustainability approach both incorporates and goes beyond an approach based on assessing and managing the risks posed by pollutants that has largely shaped environmental policy since the 1980s. Although risk-based methods have led to many successes and remain important tools, the committee said, they are not adequate to address many of the complex problems that put current and future generations at risk, such as depletion of natural resources, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. Moreover, sophisticated tools are increasingly available to address cross-cutting, complex, and challenging issues that go beyond risk management.

The report recommends that EPA formally adopt as its sustainability paradigm the widely used “three pillars” approach, which means considering the environmental, social, and economic impacts of an action or decision. Health should be expressly included in the “social” pillar, the committee recommended. The report also maintains that the EPA should articulate its vision for sustainability and develop a set of sustainability principles that would underlie all agency policies and programs.

Dernbach ‘s 2009 book “Agenda for a Sustainable America” is a comprehensive assessment of recent American sustainability efforts based on contributions from academic and other experts from around the country. It also contains recommendations for the next five to 10 years. Dernbach approached the project with the intention of providing a broad framework for moving the United States toward sustainability.

Dernbach teaches and writes in the areas of environmental law, property, international environmental law, climate change, and sustainability and the law. He was quoted prominently in Thomas L. Friedman’s latest book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How it Can Renew America.” He joined the Widener Law faculty in 1993. Dernbach codirects the Widener Environmental Law Center with Professor Jim May.

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