Mr. Middle Ground gets called to Washington

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt nominated to head the EPA

  • New EPA head cartoon


The Environmental Protection Agency has not been a happy place lately. It’s been plagued by staffing and budget cuts, including a massive reduction in funding for cleaning up polluted Superfund sites (HCN, 12/9/02: Life in the wasteland). In April 2002, EPA ombudsman Robert Martin resigned after agency chief Christine Todd Whitman began restricting his independence; then, this May, Whitman herself resigned.

On Aug. 12, President Bush announced that he had chosen Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, to replace Whitman as head of the EPA. Leavitt, who’s in his 11th year as Utah governor, could bring a buttoned-down sensibility to the job, with a reputation for avoiding finger-in-the-eye antagonism in favor of working out compromise at the bargaining table — or, as he puts it, in “the productive middle.”

But that middle ground may be elusive. As Leavitt prepares for Senate confirmation hearings in Washington, D.C., Utah activists are giving him a less-than-amiable send-off, and some Easterners are asking big questions about whether his power-to-the-states gospel might be a cover for the Bush administration’s perfect yes-man.

Leavitt’s philosophy has a name: Enlibra. Jointly developed by Leavitt and former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, D, Enlibra is a set of decision-making principles that emphasize local, collaborative — and economically viable — decisions on issues ranging from land management to radioactive waste cleanup (HCN, 4/10/00). Leavitt points to the Western Regional Air Partnership, a state, tribal and federal collaboration that has helped improve air quality over the Colorado Plateau, as one of his greatest accomplishments.

The governor’s enthusiasm for states’ power is especially significant at the EPA, which has traditionally shared regulation and enforcement responsibilities with the states. In many ways, that’s been a good thing: Giving states more autonomy allows them to create plans that best fit local realities. But Wesley Warren, a senior fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., points out that states are often inclined to overlook environmental protections in order to attract industry and jobs. “You need the federal government to act as a backstop and step in when states are unwilling to act,” he says.

That’s exactly what happened in Utah two years ago. For years, the MagCorp magnesium refinery, about 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, was the number-one air polluter in the nation. Ultimately, says local activist Chip Ward, it wasn’t the state, but the EPA that forced the company to clean up its act, by suing MagCorp for over $900 million in 2001.

Throughout the MagCorp fight, Utah was notorious within the EPA for resisting federal oversight. “They seemed to be in a constant state of aggression on states’ rights issues,” says Eric Schaeffer, who headed EPA’s civil enforcement division when the suit was filed and is now the director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Utah environmentalists point out other instances of lax environmental oversight, including the infamous Envirocare radioactive waste dump and Leavitt’s Legacy Highway project, which would destroy important wetlands for migratory birds at the Great Salt Lake (HCN, 10/14/02: Utahns could kill radioactive dump) (HCN, 4/29/02: Lake stops sprawl in its tracks ... for now). And wilderness advocates in Utah say that Leavitt’s recent back-room anti-wilderness deals with the Bush administration don’t bode well for his inclusive Enlibra doctrine (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit).

But in the end, it may be Washington bulldogs, not Utah activists, that dash Leavitt’s chances at the EPA post. His nomination places him in the middle of a major fight over the future of the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration is aggressively pushing to weaken the “New Source Review” program, which was intended to phase out older, more-polluting power plants and factories. Congress this fall will consider another Bush administration offensive: The “Clear Skies Act” would exempt polluters from oversight for carbon dioxide emissions, the major contributor to global warming.

Leavitt has expressed his support for both initiatives, which pits him against presidential contender and Independent Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords. Jeffords’ competing “Clean Power Act,” co-sponsored by Democratic presidential hopefuls Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts, would tighten Clean Air Act standards. Jeffords is also the ranking minority member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which will oversee Leavitt’s confirmation hearings.

“Clear Skies is widely despised in Congress, (even) among moderate Republicans,” says NRDC’s John Walke. “Leavitt won’t win any sympathy in Washington from people who recognize that bill to be a dirty wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The author is an HCN assistant editor.

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