President Bush's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, has hit a brick wall in the Senate. Democrats say they like Leavitt personally, but dislike the way the White House controls the EPA and so are vowing the block his nomination. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
The man chosen by President Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency is taking the heat for the environmental record of the White House during his confirmation hearing. Utah Governor Mike Leavitt had hoped to focus on his collaborative approach to regulation and enforcement. Instead, he got an earful of complaints about the administration’s environmental policy. And some Democrats, including three presidential candidates, say they’ll block his nomination when it reaches the full Senate. As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, much of that opposition has little to do with the governor’s own record.
YOUNG: Mike Leavitt can’t say he wasn’t warned. The last EPA administrator, Christie Whitman, walked away from the job after a volatile, two-year tenure. And Democratic frustration with the Bush environmental record puts the agency in the eye of a political storm. So, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid’s first question for Leavitt might prove the toughest to answer.
REID: Why in the world would you want this job?
YOUNG: Leavitt’s a three-term governor with a good personal reputation and a mixed record on the environment. Western leaders and industry groups praise his collaborative efforts to clean air and control sprawl. Utah activists and national environmental groups complain Leavitt failed to crack down on major polluters and protect sensitive lands from mining and oil and gas drilling. But the Senate’s environment and public works committee had more to say about the agency Leavitt’s heading toward than the state record he’s leaving behind. Ranking Minority member James Jeffords welcomed Leavitt with a list of complaints about an agency and administration at work behind closed doors.
JEFFORDS: They have been dismantling our environmental laws and the protections that our citizens have come to expect and, I believe, deserve from their government. Governor, many of these decisions have been made with little input from the people who will be most affected by them and must implement them, and this troubles me.
YOUNG: Jeffords says he anguished with Whitman as the administration reversed her statements on climate change and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Democrats like Oregon’s Ron Wyden say White House politics, and not sound science, now guide the EPA.
WYDEN: I believe that it’s extraordinarily important that the country have an independent, tough voice to guide environmental policy at the Environmental Protection Agency. The reason I feel that way is that I believe that now too many of our country’s environmental policies are being cooked by political chefs in the White House kitchen.
YOUNG: When Wyden asked Leavitt if he would ramp up the agency’s enforcement, Leavitt told him enforcement alone is not the main goal.
LEAVITT: The goal is compliance – to find ways to move people to compliance. And there are times when strong enforcement is the only tool available to have that happen. If there are those who avoid or those who evade the law will face the full weight of the Environmental Protection Agency and the law will be brought to assure their compliance.
WYDEN: Well, that’s not being done today. What can you tell us today about how you’d restore the independence and the credibility this agency that it’s enjoyed in the past?
LEAVITT: The president will always know where I stand. He will hear it many times publicly and sometimes privately. I recognize in the role that he has and in the role that I have what he needs from me is loyalty expressed in the context of he’ll know what I believe to be the facts and he’ll also know what the best science is and what the people of the Environmental Protection Agency believe.
YOUNG: A number of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, and Joseph Lieberman, say they will block Leavitt’s nomination in the Senate. Their objections range from changes in Superfund spending and clean air rules to the administration’s handling of the cleanup at Ground Zero. Leavitt avoided taking those issues head-on and used his responses to return to his main theme: a cleaner environment through collaboration and an approach to problem solving he calls “en libra.”
LEAVITT: It’s a Latin term – two syllables. “En” – to move toward and “libra” – balance. To move toward balance. And I have found with experience that the solutions to those problems are found in the productive middle. Rarely are they found at the extremes.
YOUNG: Leavitt’s use of that approach as governor won him measured support from moderate Democrats, like former Maryland Governor Paris Glendenning, and an enthusiastic endorsement from Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
HATCH : Utahns know that Governor Leavitt took a clean, beautiful, strong state and made it cleaner, more beautiful, and stronger. What more could we ask from a nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency?
YOUNG: Environmental activists in Utah disagree. They say Leavitt favors highway construction over wetlands protection and made the state among the nation’s worst in enforcing the Clean Water Act. They say Leavitt was quick to take campaign dollars from polluting industries and slow to reign in companies like the Kennecott copper mine, the nation’s top toxic polluter. Sixteen national environmental groups joined the Utah activists in opposition to Leavitt’s nomination. Among them is the Environmental Integrity Project, lead by the EPA’s former head of civil enforcement, Eric Schaeffer. Schaeffer says it was a chore to get Utah to enforce environmental laws.
SCHAEFER: Dealing with Utah was very painful. They were always interested in keeping the federal government out of the state and less interested in making sure big companies in state were complying with federal law. That created a lot of tension. And he does have code words like “collaboration” and “balance” and “sound science” memorized. What he doesn’t have is the record to back it up. That’s what we’re hoping people will take a look at.
YOUNG: Despite those objections, Republicans are confident Leavitt will win committee approval. But his fate is less clear in the full Senate where the threatened blocks could stall his nomination. History is on Leavitt’s side. The Senate has never rejected a nominee for the position. And the president holds a trump card if Democrats delay – he could put Leavitt in office during a Congressional recess, an appointment that would last through the end of next year before another round of Senatorial review. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
[MUSIC: Tom Waits “Strange Weather” BIG TIME (Island-1988)]
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