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Know the West

Bush's second-term shake-ups

The political appointments you don’t hear about — and how they affect the West


As President George W. Bush begins his second term of office, subtle personnel shifts are already occurring within the federal government — and they may have some serious implications for the West.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 18,000 employees protect the environment and public health by enforcing laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and overseeing cleanup of the nation’s Superfund sites, including more than 2,200 mines, refineries and landfills in the West.

Under Bush, the 35-year-old agency has seen unprecedented administrative changes: For the second time since 2001, the EPA was without an administrator when former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, left after only 13 months to head the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. The agency can function without an administrator, says EPA spokesman Dave Ryan, because its agenda "is guided a lot by congressional statute. We don’t act unilaterally; we’re implementers."

But Eric Schaeffer, former director of the agency’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement, says the EPA is becoming an "orphan" under Bush. "Under Clinton and (George H.W.) Bush, it had a fair amount of independence," says Schaeffer, who now directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. Now, he says, "the White House basically runs the EPA."

Even before Bush named Leavitt’s temporary successor — Stephen Johnson, EPA’s deputy administrator — the agency had begun rewriting rules regarding pesticides and air pollution from factory farms. It is also changing reporting requirements for the Toxics Release Inventory, a public database that tracks chemicals released from facilities such as landfills, mines and chemical factories.

The agency’s mission is to set environmental standards and regulate polluters, but that appears to be changing, says Kei Koizumi, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s research and development program. Both the Superfund program and the research and development budget saw cuts this year. Meanwhile, the agency received $97 million for homeland security responsibilities such as protecting the nation’s drinking water supply from terrorist attacks. "In the next few years," says Koizumi, "it’s pretty clear that the administration and Congress are going to tighten domestic spending to give EPA less regulatory control."

The U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees energy development and the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, has a new secretary. Bush’s first appointee, Spencer Abraham — a lifelong politician and former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee — resigned in mid-November. His replacement is Samuel Bodman, who was a deputy secretary of the Commerce Department and then of the U.S. Treasury during Bush’s first term. He is also the former chairman and CEO of Cabot Corporation, a Boston-based chemical company.

Bodman is clearly aligned with the Bush administration: He supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, boosting nuclear energy research, upgrading the nation’s nuclear weapons and storing commercial nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The White House and the Senate compromised on appointments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees commercial nuclear reactors and waste facilities. Pete Lyons landed one seat. He’s a 28-year veteran of Los Alamos National Laboratory and an advisor to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a staunch supporter of Yucca Mountain. Greg Jaczko, a nuclear physicist and aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., gained the other seat. Because Reid opposes Yucca Mountain, however, the nuclear industry fought Jaczko’s appointment; Congress only approved him with the stipulation that he recuse himself for one year from any issues pertaining to Yucca Mountain.

Ann Veneman has resigned from her post as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which guides farm policy and oversees the U.S. Forest Service. Veneman served in President George H.W. Bush’s administration and was on the board of directors of Calgene Corporation, a subsidiary of the bio-tech giant Monsanto.

Veneman’s successor is former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, R. After being confirmed by the Senate, Johanns outlined his priorities for the department, which are mainly agriculture-related. His introductory remarks to the nation’s USDA employees made no mention of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 191 million acres and employs more than 37,000 people.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Interior will continue under the direction of Secretary Gale Norton, the former general counsel for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a private property rights group. When asked about the department’s priorities in Bush’s second term, Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said there is "not a lot new" (HCN, 5/24/04: A champion of ‘cooperative conservation’).

Sharon Buccino, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees that Interior’s agenda will involve "more of the same … Energy development will be the dominant use of our public lands, and there will be continued efforts to cut back on environmental regulation and public review," she says. "Bush’s agenda is the industry’s agenda."

The author is HCN assistant editor.