Whitman as EPA administrator?

January 08, 2001|By Edward Flattau

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, President-elect George W. Bush's choice for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, doesn't seem to understand the job for which she has been nominated -- and that is clearly cause for concern.

Neither she nor her future boss talks as though they fully grasp the distinction between being a governor and overseeing the federal government's environmental protection infrastructure. Both Mr. Bush and Ms. Whitman have pledged that the EPA will employ the "balanced approach" that the New Jersey governor used in handling controversies between environmentalists and the business community in her state.

It may be appropriate for governors to seek a "balanced" solution since, at least in theory, they are equally obligated to all the competing interests under their jurisdiction.

But the primary role of the EPA administrator is to be an advocate, not a mediator. Ms. Whitman's responsibility is to safeguard public health and environmental quality to the maximum degree possible, not preoccupy herself with the welfare of any special constituency.

She should stop spending time figuring out how to get the best deal for the business community. Corporate America's interests have no shortage of defenders in the federal government. They range from the Commerce Department, the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget to numerous friends in the president's inner circle, not the least of whom is Vice President Dick Cheney.

None of these parties will be agonizing about the need for "balance" between their cause and that of environmental protection. They are seeking an advantage for their pet interests.

Hence, Ms. Whitman needs to aggressively champion the general public's welfare while extracting as many concessions as she can from her friends in industry. If she doesn't do it, there won't be anyone else to pick up the slack.

Governor Whitman's past record unfortunately does not augur well for future performance.

For example, she was lauded for support of anti-sprawl programs and preservation of 250,000 acres of open space in her state. Yet, according to the local Sierra Club chapter, New Jersey during her seven-year reign lost about 60,000 acres annually to development. It was the highest percentage by far of undeveloped land lost in any state, a circumstance that the Sierra Club attributes to deficient implementation of her smart-growth strategies.

Other troubling aspects of Ms. Whitman's record include cutting the New Jersey Environmental Department's budget by 30 percent, a move undoubtedly contributing to a nearly 80 percent decrease in fines for violations of state air and water pollution permits.

One might also surmise that the decline in state enforcement actions was due in part to her willingness to place blind faith in companies' promises to voluntarily comply with state environmental regulations.

Speaking of compliance, Ms. Whitman failed to submit the appropriate documentation that the federal Clean Water Act required, resulting in the EPA's withholding $2.2 million in grants to New Jersey. The governor also mandated that New Jersey's anti-pollution standard be no stricter than Washington's. This was hardly an aggressive stance to take for the nation's most polluted and densely settled state when the federal requirements were intended as nothing more than a bare-bones starting point.

Ms. Whitman has also at times seemed intimidated by business, not a healthy attitude to carry into the EPA administrator's post. In a recent interview with a local newspaper, the governor declared it was necessary to be mindful of corporations' concerns because otherwise, "we'll lose since they've got more gumption, more dollars to put behind their efforts, more power to sway things."

The New Jersey governor needs to read up on her history. Although outnumbered and outspent, environmental lawyers and lobbyists have consistently managed to best their corporate counterparts, evidenced by the substantial margin of court victories and the strong federal statutory framework put in place over the past 30 years.

Let's hope that in her new job, Ms. Whitman doesn't buy into corporate chieftains' protestations that they will go bankrupt if faced with stricter environmental regulations. That has been their traditional line for decades, yet if anything, the vast majority of complainants (especially the loudest) have continued to prosper handsomely as the laws have tightened. It should also be noted that as influential as the major companies are with official Washington, their impact pales before that of public opinion when the latter gets even mildly agitated.

In sum, the most important thing for Governor Whitman to remember is that the EPA job is not about balance (or balance sheets). It's about preference, a preference for nurturing health ahead of profit.

Her predecessor at the EPA, Carol Browner, understood that well. The nation desperately needs the New Jersey governor to do the same. Otherwise, the EPA will be a straggler before it even gets out of the gate.

Edward Flattau writes about environmental issues.

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