Senate Gives Cordial Reception to EPA Nominee Whitman

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2001 (ENS) - New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman today fended off concerns that she would cave in to corporate polluters and other special interests if she is confirmed as President-elect George W. Bush's nominee to head up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Whitman, a Republican who has served as New Jersey's governor since 1993, experienced a mostly conciliatory confirmation hearing today before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.

Whitman

New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

While Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joseph Lieberman and other Democrats on the panel expressed some misgivings over Whitman's environmental record, senators on both sides of the dais acknowledged that the New Jersey governor will "almost certainly" win confirmation to assume the cabinet level position of EPA administrator.

Whitman, in her remarks to the committee, said that she is "looking forward to the job ahead." Echoing a principle articulated by President-elect Bush, Whitman said that she would work to launch a "new era of cooperation among all stakeholders in environmental protection."

"There is much government can do, but government cannot do it alone," Whitman said. "We will maintain a strong federal role, but we will provide flexibility to the states and local communities ... to craft solutions that meet their unique situations."

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Whitman canoes on New Jersey's Mill Creek, where she facilitated a project to rehabilitate 143 acres of degraded wetlands (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

Whitman told the Senate panel that as EPA administrator, she would place greater emphasis on "market based incentives" in cleaning up industrial pollution and other environmental problems.

The EPA would rely on "strong science" under her leadership, Whitman said, maintaining that "scientific analysis should drive policy, [and] neither policy nor politics should drive scientific results."

And in a preemptive move that countered some of the criticism that has been leveled against her, Whitman told the panel that she would work to promote effective compliance with environmental standards without weakening the EPA's commitment to "vigorous enforcement" of stringent laws and regulations.

"We will offer the carrot first, but we will not retrieve the stick of enforcement," Whitman said.

As EPA administrator, Whitman would be responsible for establishing and enforcing a group of environmental laws and programs such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the so-called Superfund program, which is designed to facilitate the cleanup of America's most hazardous waste sites. She would also oversee the EPA's environmental research initiatives, and make recommendations to the President on environmental policy.

Some environmental groups have charged that Whitman has not been a strong advocate for enforcing environmental laws, citing the staff cuts that she made as governor at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The groups charge that these cuts undermined the state agency's ability to monitor and enforce pollution control laws.

Those charges were largely borne out by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which in 1997 surveyed DEQ employees about the department's functioning under Whitman. The PEER survey found that under Whitman, the enforcement of environmental laws declined sharply, while there were marked increases in "corporate influence" and "manipulation of scientific findings."

"According to the professional staff who worked under Governor Whitman in New Jersey, pressure to block enforcement of anti-pollution laws, back-door efforts to gut regulations and a pervasive fear of retaliation have been the hallmarks of her tenure," said attorney Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

Ruch did not testify at Whitman's hearing on Wednesday, but his organization did submit its survey and other documentation critical of the New Jersey governor to the Senate panel.

Democrats on the Senate panel were quick to question Whitman about her commitment to enforcing the nation's environmental laws. Leading that charge was Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, now back in the Senate after his failed bid for the vice presidency as Al Gore's running mate.

Lieberman

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Lieberman told Whitman that the election demonstrated that there is a "broad consensus" for strong environmental protections in the United States, and that often times the "stick" of enforcement is the only way to ensure that those goals are realized.

Whitman agreed with Lieberman that enforcement is "critical," but she said that "positive initiatives" frequently resulted in faster and better environmental cleanups. To that end, she cited a "facility wide permitting" initiative that she launched as governor of New Jersey. Under the initiative, she explained, industries were allowed to "voluntarily agree" on what level of pollutants were "acceptable" to release into the air and water.

By issuing only one "facility wide" discharge permit, industries were more inclined to stay within the established pollution limits, Whitman said. Moreover, under such a "cap and trade" scheme, industries are often willing to go beyond the pollution standards that they impose on themselves, because by doing so, they can "trade" emissions credits with other facilities, Whitman added.

That was not good enough for Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who chairs the Senate committee until the Republicans reassume control on January 20.

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Nevada Senator Harry Reid (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Reid expressed concern with Whitman's "voluntary compliance" initiative, saying that he hopes the new EPA administrator would not compile a legacy of being soft on industrial polluters.

Whitman denied the charge. "We are absolutely ready to use the stick [of mandatory enforcement]," she said.

The Republican members of the panel were more receptive to Whitman's position regarding innovative solutions for solving the nation's environmental problems. Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, said that the EPA under the Clinton administration frequently acted to "instill and inflict fear and intimidation" in its enforcement activities. He asked Whitman to end that practice, and to instead work with regulated industries and small businesses in a conciliatory fashion.

Inhofe

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Whitman pledged to do just that, saying that "instilling fear does not solve problems, generally." She said that under her leadership, the EPA would give regulatory violators a "grace period" to fix their environmental problems in a "creative way."

"Compassionate compliance - that's good," remarked Inhofe, paraphrasing President-elect George W. Bush's mantra of "compassionate conservatism."

Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, took issue with Inhofe's remark and Whitman's position on the issue of environmental enforcement.

"Compassionate compliance is a great idea, but we don't want it to lead to taxpayers' tears," Boxer said.

Boxer wanted Whitman's assurance that she would preserve the EPA's authority to add new Superfund sites to the National Priorities List, a compilation of some of the most hazardous waste sites in the nation. Boxer noted that there is a stigma of "bad press" associated with a Superfund classification, but she emphasized that the new EPA administrator must support the program.

Whitman faced a host of probing questions leveled by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat and the wife of the nation's outgoing chief executive. Clinton queried Whitman about her "commitment" to the EPA's $460 million plan to clean up New York's Hudson River, which is contaminated with more than 100,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) released by the General Electric Company.

Clinton

New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Whitman said that she would "look closely" at the plan, which GE has vowed to fight in court. But Whitman said that it would be "inappropriate" for her to comment on the cleanup proposal until she is confirmed as EPA administrator, and then only after the public comment period on the proposal is over.

Whitman gave a similar response to Nevada Senator Reid, who asked if she would enforce the landmark diesel emissions rule that the Clinton administration and outgoing EPA administrator Carol Browner announced last month. The rule, heralded as one of the Clinton administration's most significant environmental accomplishments, mandates that diesel emissions from heavy duty trucks and buses be reduced by some 97 percent by 2006.

Whitman would not commit to enforcing the rule, saying that as part of the Bush administration, she would have an "obligation to review all pending rules and all new rules" before signing on to them.

Inhofe has been a leading Senate proponent of that strategy. The Oklahoma Republican has objected to the spate of "midnight regulations" that the Clinton administration has enacted in the waning weeks of its final term, which ends at noon on Saturday.

"What is most disturbing is that the Clinton/Gore administration will promulgate these regulations at any cost," Inhofe wrote in a recent op-ed piece published in the "Washington Times" newspaper. "This last minute regulatory push serves two purposes: first, it panders to special interest groups for political gain, and second, it preempts regulatory decisions which should properly be made by the next administration."

Reid also questioned Whitman about her commitment to the concept of environmental justice, which is concerned with keeping polluting facilities from clustering in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.

Whitman affirmed her commitment to the principle, saying that no community should be "singled out" to be "dumped on."

Reid was not satisfied with that answer, pressing Whitman on the matter of a controversial cement plant that was allowed to locate in poor minority neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey.

Whitman said that she would respond to Reid's environmental justice question in writing before Monday.

Reid, after the hearing, called Whitman "very non-committal."

"She didn't pin herself down very often," Reid said. "She gave herself lots of wiggle room."

Still, Reid and other Democratic Senators told ENS that they fully expect that Whitman will win Senate confirmation and become EPA administrator.

Reid said that the committee will try to report back on Whitman's nomination hearing by the end of next week.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have mounted a much more concerted effort to derail the nomination of another one of Bush's would-be key environmental advisors - Interior Secretary designate Gale Norton. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have compiled a six figure war chest to fund a series of television and radio advertisements critical of Norton, who as Interior Secretary would wield great power over the disposal of the nation's public lands.

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Gale Norton, President-elect Bush's nominee for Secretary of the Interior

Norton has been sharply criticized by the environmental community for her ties to James Watt who served as Interior Secretary for three years under President Ronald Reagan. Many critics maintain he was the most anti-environmental interior secretary in the nation's history.

Still, sources on Capitol Hill say it is highly unlikely that the campaign to block Norton's confirmation will prevail. Norton's confirmation hearing will be held tomorrow afternoon in the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.