`Challenge Of The Next Generation'

Sun Journal

Epa Chief: While Some Of The Big, Obvious Environmental Problems Have Been Partially Solved, Carol M. Browner Says The Job Ahead Is Far From Done.

April 24, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rivers no longer catch fire. Smokestacks rarely belch thick black smoke.

But Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggests the job of cleaning up the nation's air, water and land is far from finished.

Browner, who has led the agency for four years -- longer than any of her predecessors -- says she wants to guide the country into "a new generation, a second generation of public health and environmental protections."

"We have done the easy things," she says in an interview. "And what is before us is far more difficult and is going to take a constant commitment and vigilance."

Browner has put her stamp on a federal agency that has been notoriously difficult to mold. She has pressed for expanding the public's "right to know" about pollution in their communities and for making protection of children a top priority for environmental regulation.

But activists and industry executives are divided on Browner's other emphasis -- her effort to make pollution rules more flexible and have them reflect common sense. Environmentalists praise her but fear any relaxation of cleanup requirements, while business leaders chafe under what they contend are costly and unnecessary rules.

"I think Carol's instincts are very good," says Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, calling her "a great spokesman for the environment."

Richard Seibert of the National Association of Manufacturers says that her promises to ease the regulatory burden seem empty, especially in light of the EPA's effort to tighten limits on air pollution. Under Browner, he says, the agency has become "schizophrenic."

The air pollution controversy is for now the agency's biggest challenge. In November, the EPA proposed tightening current federal limits on soot and ozone in the atmosphere. Officials cited studies showing that the pollutants can cause breathing problems and premature deaths, at concentrations well below what the government now considers safe.

But even before the rule was formally proposed, manufacturers and the oil and auto industries began challenging the scientific studies, and warned that the new regulations could require onerous controls on everything from driving to backyard barbecues.

Their complaints have been dismissed by Browner and by environmental activists, but industry has gained a sympathetic hearing on Capitol Hill, where Browner was questioned last week.

She insists no final decision has been made, but also rejects the charges that the agency's science is shoddy or that tighter pollution limits will ruin industry. She points to similar complaints in the past about reducing auto emissions, replacing chlorofluorocarbons and curbing acid rain.

"Every single time we faced an air quality problem in this country, industry has said, `No way, no how,' " Browner says. "Industry has said it will be outrageously expensive and we will not be able to do it. And each and every time, industry and government have risen to the occasion, found a solution, and done it more quickly and cost effectively than anyone could imagine."

Two years ago, Browner was fighting for the EPA's survival, not for new regulations. Republicans had won control of Congress, and they tried to cut to Browner's budget and power. One GOP leader justified the assault by calling the EPA an "environmental Gestapo." But the agency weathered the assault, as President Clinton discovered that environmental issues would help him win re-election. Now, Browner anticipates increasing -- not cutting -- her agency's 17,000 work force and $7 billion budget. And she won Clinton's support this week for requiring industry to report its release into the environment of any of an expanded list of toxic chemicals.

The renewed activism at the EPA pleases environmentalists, who initially questioned Browner's competence and the Clinton administration's "green"-ness. Browner, 41, had returned to Washington from two years as Florida's environment secretary. But more important is that she had worked as an aide to then-Sen. Al Gore -- the experience that many believe won her the job as EPA chief.

Her staunch defense of EPA during the budget battles on Capital Hill in 1995 earned her respect, but critics now wonder whether that episode blunted her push to reform the agency.

Browner once talked of rewriting the country's major environmental laws, calling the federal Superfund toxic dump cleanup program "broken." But now, unwilling to seek legislation from a Republican-controlled Congress, Browner emphasizes how the EPA has improved the program on its own. She boasts that her agency has cleaned up more Superfund sites in the past four years than had been done in the previous 12.

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