BIG GOVERNMENT, BAD SCIENCE, REGULATORY ABUSE

BIG GOVERNMENT, BAD SCIENCE, REGULATORY ABUSE

Wouldn't it be nice to start out the new millennium secure in the knowledge we had turned our backs once and for all on mind-boggling schemes dreamed up by Washington bureaucrats?

A report by the Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation and the Lexington Institute provides no such comfort. Titled ''Big Government, Bad Science: 10 Case Studies in Regulatory Abuse,'' it throws cold water on the idea.Following is what the public policy experts who contributed to the report unearthed on topics ranging from clean air to endangered species and from ''factory farms'' to drinking water.

* Information technology: Washington should keep supercomputers out of the hands of unfriendly nations. But in a world where yesterday's supercomputer is today's laptop, regulators must keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology.

By failing to keep pace, the Commerce Department has threatened America's dominance of information technology by preventing U.S. exports of computers that are already widely available. This provides no benefits to national security but does give an edge to overseas competitors.

* Clean water: Then there's the matter of polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs. Even though PCBs' alleged cancer threat has been debunked by recent scientific findings, the Environmental Protection Agency still plans to rid the Hudson River in New York state of these slowly dissipating chemicals.

To the horror of local residents, the agency wants General Electric Co. to dredge the river of PCBs. But dredging would only stir up the PCBs, requiring more dredging. The whole self-defeating exercise could go on indefinitely.

* Clean air: The EPA also wants to slap new restrictions on tailpipe emissions of hot-selling sport utility vehicles. It claims the new regulations, and cuts in the sulfur content of gasoline, would save 2,400 lives a year.

The claim, however, is based on a single, EPA-funded study whose supporting data haven't undergone independent peer review. In fact, the agency hasn't even seen the data.

It was on the basis of this secret science that President Clinton on Dec. 21 declared that the new measures ''will prevent thousands of premature deaths, and protect millions of our children.''

* Drinking water: By ignoring the recommendations of its own scientists and torpedoing a science-based standard for chloroform in drinking water, the EPA is forcing water systems across the country to expend precious resources combating fictitious risks.

Chloroform is created when water is purified to remove life-threatening microbes. Even though exhaustive scientific research shows that trace elements of chloroform pose only a negligible risk, the EPA insists that water systems adhere to a zero standard - which is unattainable anyway.

* Fishing: The White House and an interagency task force have devised an elaborate scheme to deal with a low-oxygen area in the Gulf of Mexico where fish cannot live. This ''hypoxic'' zone is said to lie at the mouth of the Mississippi River and to have been created by Midwest farmers using too much fertilizer.

To reduce the nutrient content of waters spilling into the Gulf, the feds propose cutting the use of fertilizer in the Midwest and converting 24 million acres of prime farmland into wetlands and forests.

Trouble is, the hypoxic zone has nothing to do with fertilizer runoff. It's a natural phenomenon associated with rainfall in the Mississippi River Valley. It expands during floods and contracts during droughts. By reducing nutrients reaching marine life, Washington's plans would have a devastating effect on gulf fishing.

* Biotechnology: The EPA plans to regulate genetically modified plants as pesticides. Instead of applauding the work of scientists who have boosted the world's food supply by making plants more resistant to insects, viruses, bacteria and fungi, the agency wants to begin requiring case-by-case regulatory review of plants modified through gene splicing.

The Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, an international consortium of scientific and professional societies, has called this approach ''scientifically indefensible,'' saying it would ''undermine public confidence in the food supply.''

* Land use: The Endangered Species Act, instead of protecting species, has been cynically used as a cover for cost-free control of land use. Landowners whose property is home to threatened or endangered species lose the economic use of their land - and receive no compensation.

The law's perverse incentives have turned landowners against species, giving rise to the ''shoot, shovel and shut-up'' syndrome.

* Big farms: The EPA is also aiming its regulatory guns at ''confined animal feeding operations.'' By doing so, the agency may inadvertently end up contributing to more agricultural manure finding its way into rivers and streams.

The waste from animals raised in confinement is treated rather than discharged willy-nilly into the environment. This is not the case with free-range farm animals. Indeed, it is the manure runoff from free-range chickens and hogs that poses the real environmental problem.

Hiding data, playing fast and loose with science, solving problems that don't exist: These are some of the things in the bag of tricks regulators use to keep us under their thumb.

Science-based regulations can save lives, but these abuses show how far we are from that ideal.