Earth mother EPA chief raises a family while raising eco issues

September 26, 1993|By William E. Gibson | William E. Gibson,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Late one evening during the Washington budget frenzy, Carol Browner looked over her staff at the Environmental Protection Agency and noticed the mounting desperation of one working mother.

"The meeting was running late, and I could just see the panic coming over this one woman while the clock ticked," says Ms. Browner, the EPA's administrator. "I knew she had a son down in the child-care center. I told her, 'Look, why don't you just bring him up here? We'll put him in the corner with some crayons.'

"I mean, I certainly don't care. We've had other kids up here."

Ms. Browner, who raises a 5-year-old son while running a major federal agency, has made a point of bringing children into the national debate on the environment, in all sorts of ways.

She reflects a generation of women in government who reject the traditional practice of distancing family lives from work lives, as though children were merely a distraction. She keeps children in mind when making public policy, and her speeches are laced with anecdotes about her own son.

While Attorney General Janet Reno has become the nation's symbolic Mother Justice, Ms. Browner, 37, is emerging as a regulatory working-mom version of Mother Nature.

"I think it's hard not to care about the environment if you grow up in South Florida," she says. Her words flow swiftly and her hands keep churning, animated by nervous energy.

"And having a kid made it imperative," she says. "I really wonder what kind of place we're going to leave our children. I really believe if we don't make the right decisions now, their quality of life will be radically different from ours. So I have a responsibility // not just as a mother but as the head of the country's environmental agency to protect the children."

It's a responsibility she's acted on:

The EPA chief has ordered studies of what children eat to develop safeguards against pesticide residue.

She has issued advisories to protect children from exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, advising adults, if they must smoke, to do so outdoors and away from other people.

She is developing a toxic-cleanup program to protect vulnerable city neighborhoods.

"It's a matter of looking at the people who are most at risk and designing your protections for them," Ms. Browner says, "as opposed to what we've tended to do, which is to focus on middle-class, middle-aged white males, whose lifestyle is very different from senior citizens, from children, from low-income minority communities."

Ms. Browner devises her policies in an environmentally unsafe tangle of buildings along the Potomac River. The EPA offices, housed in a former apartment complex, are poorly ventilated and crowded with heavy equipment.

One of Ms. Browner's first visitors, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, emerged pale and trembling after being trapped for 20 minutes with five others in the tiny elevator that leads to her secluded office.

Ms. Browner, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, took command in January of EPA's 17,000 employees and $6 billion annual budget. If the House votes to elevate her job this fall, as the Senate did in May, she will become a member of President Clinton's Cabinet.

Tough choices

Ms. Browner must balance the heady responsibility of regulating the nation's environment with raising Zachary. Like all working parents, she faces tough choices.

"The first day I got here, I said, 'Who has children?' because it was 9 o'clock at night and we're all still here. It turns out several of them have children, so I said we're going to a rotation system so parents could go home to their children at least one evening of the week."

Ms. Browner says finding the right balance sometimes means kissing the job good-bye.

"On the Friday before Mother's Day, Zach's school was doing a little thing," she says. "There was some big meeting on my schedule, but I said, 'I've got to go. This is my kid's day for moms to be at school, and my kid is not going to be the only one without his mom there.' "

At school, Zach's mom discovered that 5-year-olds have a remarkable knowledge of environmental issues. All of Zach's classmates knew about recycling and many knew something about endangered species.

"Kids fundamentally get it," Ms. Browner says. "Why would you hurt your environment? Why would you hurt the place that you live in? Just in conversations with my kid, I find that he just doesn't understand why you wouldn't take care of what's around you."

Ms. Browner walks Zach to his public school each morning with her husband, Michael Podhorzer, who works for Citizen Action, a public-interest advocacy group. (The couple met while advocating Superfund legislation to clean up toxic waste. "That old Superfund," Ms. Browner jokes. "It's amazing what it can do.")

Then Zach's parents board a subway train in Takoma Park, their multiethnic neighborhood on the edge of the city, to ride to their workplaces. "This is like our 20 minutes together, on the Metro," Ms. Browner says.

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