EPA nominee Whitman faces little opposition at confirmation hearing

N.J. governor vows to steer agency toward compromise, negotiation

January 18, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman appeared headed for easy Senate confirmation as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency after a Senate committee treated her gently during a confirmation hearing yesterday.

Whitman, a Republican moderate who has been avowedly pro-business as governor of the nation's most developed state, vowed to steer the agency toward compromise and negotiation, rather than lawsuits and fines.

"Enforcement is a critical tool. It must never be abandoned," Whitman told the Environment and Public Works Committee. But too often, she said, the EPA has "instilled fear" in companies that fail to comply with environmental laws.

"What happens is people back away from problem-solving and become defensive," she said. In New Jersey, "where we have a collegial relationship with some of the businesses, they will clean up faster and in some cases better."

Rather than approach violators with the threat of fines, she said, under her leadership the EPA would give violators a "grace period" to clean up their pollution.

"If they don't clean up within the grace period, then they will be fined, and they know that," she said.

Republicans on the committee seemed pleased with Whitman's tack, which Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe dubbed "compassionate compliance." But Democrats were more dubious.

"Compassionate compliance for polluters is a great idea," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, "but we don't want it to end with taxpayer tears."

Whitman outlined a set of priorities that would benefit pollution-fighting efforts in Maryland. She said she wants to expand the EPA's existing "brownfields" program, aimed at cleaning up and re-using abandoned industrial sites such as those along Baltimore's waterfront. She called for voluntary interstate agreements that would reduce the flow of air pollutants from the industrial Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic states. And she said the federal government needs to spend a lot more money on repairing and replacing aging city sewer systems, which chronically fail and spill sewage into the nation's waters.

Whitman, 54, has compiled a mixed record on the environment as New Jersey's governor since 1994.

She was a strong proponent of tougher air pollution rules, she banned ocean dumping of polluted sediment dredged from New Jersey's shipping channels, and she pushed through a $1 billion bond program to buy and preserve farmlands, forests and marshes.

But in her first term she sharply cut spending at the state's environmental agency and eliminated a statewide environmental prosecutor's job. Those cuts were forced by an unexpectedly large budget deficit, she said yesterday.

During her four-hour confirmation hearing, Whitman resolutely refused to say whether she would move forward on environmental initiatives begun by current EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner.

"We have the authority and, I believe, the obligation to review all pending rules, and we will do that," she said, echoing President-elect George W. Bush's vow to review all 11th-hour acts of the Clinton administration.

"She was a good witness," said Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who is committee chairman until Inauguration Day. "She answered all our questions and didn't pin herself down on anything. ... She gave herself lots of wiggle room."

Reid said he expects Whitman's nomination to go to the Senate floor for a vote next week.

The hearing marked the debut of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as a working committee member. As she strode to her seat, Clinton sparked a frenzy of flashbulbs from press photographers.

Courteously and persistently, Clinton asked Whitman to commit to a series of EPA actions that would benefit pollution cleanups in New York. Equally courteously in each case, Whitman pledged merely "to work with you on that."

It was a return engagement for Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate, who was re-elected to his Senate seat during the Democrats' failed White House bid.

"Senator Lieberman, I can't tell you how good it is to see you back here," said New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, the senior Republican on the committee.

Said Lieberman, with a grin, "I am warmed by your welcome."

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