Who’s at the helm?

The EPA hasn’t had anyone at the wheel for three months — but it’s been charging full steam ahead

  • Industrial pollutors cartoon

    Monte Wolverton

While Democrats and Republicans, industry groups and environmentalists face off over Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, the Bush administration’s latest choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency has kicked into turbo mode, churning out new policies and aggressively revamping old regulations (HCN, 9/01/03: Mr. Middle Ground gets called to Washington).

In the three months since EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman resigned, the EPA has made industry-friendly revisions to the Clean Air Act, rescinded a 27-year-old policy that bans the sale of real estate contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs, and more or less abandoned mainstay environmental programs like Superfund. The agency is also standing behind President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative, a program environmentalists fear would dramatically weaken pollution control.

“These actions took place in the dog days of August (while Congress was out of town), to deflect some of the public attention,” says Jeff Ruch, director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“Third wave” revisions

Last New Year’s Eve, the EPA announced a draft revision to the New Source Review — a provision in the Clean Air Act that requires aging factories and power plants to keep up with air pollution laws. Despite a report from Congress’ General Accounting Office saying that the agency had no data to support “streamlining” the New Source Review, the EPA rushed to finalize that revision in August.

“They were under such pressure to put the rule out before Congress returned to town that they failed to clean up the internal edits in the rule,” says John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air Program. “I used to work at the EPA, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Now, coal-fired power plants, refineries, chemical factories and other polluters are allowed to expand their plants without also updating their pollution-control systems.

Then, in mid-August, Whitman’s outgoing general counsel, Robert Fabricant, “reinterpreted” a policy that prevented the sale or transfer of property contaminated by PCBs — the same chemical that catapulted New York’s Love Canal to infamy in the late 1970s. By “reinterpreting” rather than “revising” the policy, no public comment period was necessary, and the policy change was effective immediately.

That’s good news, says PEER’s Ruch, for the U.S. Department of Defense, which is gearing up for its “third wave” of base closures across the country. Under the old PCB policy, the military would have had to spend millions of dollars to clean up thousands of contaminated buildings before it could transfer them into state or private ownership. Now, under the EPA’s new policy, the military — and big business — can transfer lands and buildings contaminated with PCBs to new ownership without spending money or fearing future liability.

Sweetheart deal for Edison

Despite its name, the origins of the Clear Skies Initiative are murky at best. In the fall of 2001, the EPA drafted a bill that would “update” the 1970 Clean Air Act. But industry, notably the Edison Electric Utility, opposed the draft policy. According to NRDC’s Walke, Edison’s president — who also happens to be President Bush’s old college roommate — complained to the White House. A few months later, on Valentine’s Day 2002, the EPA unveiled Clear Skies, which would loosen limits on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. Walke says Clear Skies is “weaker and slower” than the current Clean Air Act. And, it completely ignores carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists say contribute to global warming. Despite a lack of support — Clear Skies has twice failed to pass the vote in Congress — President Bush is still stumping for the policy.

In the meantime, the top seat remains vacant at the EPA. But many say it’s irrelevant whether Leavitt — or someone else — becomes administrator: “Many felt there wasn’t an administrator while Christie Todd Whitman was there,” says Ruch. “The White House was directing environmental policy even then.”

The author is an assistant editor of HCN.

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