Debate about the new choice head of the EPA has triggered criticism about how the agency operates within the Bush administration. Critics say the White House is warping science to meet a political agenda, a charge the administration denies. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
After weeks of delays, the nomination of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been reported out of committee to the full Senate. But the controversy about his nomination is far from over. In fact it’s escalating into a barrage of criticism, not so much about Governor Leavitt himself, but about the relationship between the EPA and the White House. Some members of Congress, along with some scientists and advocates, charge that the White House is suppressing or altering science at the EPA to suit a political agenda. From Washington, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our story.
YOUNG: New York Democrat Hillary Clinton is among the Senators using Leavitt’s nomination as a platform for complaints about the EPA and how it operates in the Bush administration. Her issue is the agency’s response to air quality questions after the 9-11 terrorist attack in Manhattan.
CLINTON: Now I recognize that EPA and everyone else involved was operating under extraordinarily difficult and unprecedented circumstances. But I just cannot accept that there seems to have been a deliberate effort at the direction of the White House to provide unwarranted reassurances to New Yorkers about whether their air was safe to breathe.
YOUNG: Senator Clinton cited an EPA Inspector General report that found the White House pressured the agency to make statements about air safety which were not supported by data. North Carolina Democrat John Edwards says the agency is slow to examine health effects of changes to the Clean Air Act. And Vermont Independent James Jeffords wants answers about the president’s new rules on coal-fired power plants. Clinton said all these grievances reflect an underlying problem.
CLINTON: It appears that environmental policy in this administration is set at the White House, not at the Environmental Protection Agency.
YOUNG: It’s a complaint echoed by some past EPA administrators, including Russell
Train. Train was involved in the talks 33 years ago that established EPA as an independent agency charged with protecting the nation’s environment. He later led EPA under Presidents Nixon and Ford.
TRAIN: I don’t really ever recall any pressure from the White House when I was at EPA to change a regulatory position. As far as I was concerned, that was unheard of.
YOUNG: These days, Train says, he hears of far too many instances of political pressure guiding EPA decisions.
TRAIN: I think the White House is making a very big mistake to inject itself in that fashion into the regulatory process. Public health will suffer and I think that’s a very bad road down which to go.
YOUNG: Train fears that lack of independence will affect the science the agency conducts and communicates with the public. Bill Hirzy, a senior scientist in EPA’s office of pollution prevention, shares that concern. Hirzy is also vice president of the union local for EPA professional staff. He says staff members worry about things like the recent report on the state of the environment. A draft of the report mentioned the potential health consequences of global climate change. But after an editing session with the White House, that changed.
HIRZY: The reference to global warming just vanished from the report. The scuttlebutt among the staff is that this report does not really comport with the best science. It is simply not supported by the science and that’s a shame.
YOUNG: Critics say actions like those cross a line into science where politics should not interfere. Jeff Ruch leads Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group for workers who want to bring attention to questionable behavior by government agencies.
RUCH: It’s one thing for the political appointees to set overall policy, but its another for them to reach down to try and alter scientific recommendations and conclusions or suppress those that don’t fit a political agenda. You see this either kind of scientific manipulation or pressure across the board of EPA programs. You’ve got scientists who have to make decisions between their conscience and their career. And those are the kind of calls we get at PEER.
YOUNG: Complaints like those sparked a report by Democrats in the House Committee
on Government Reform. The report looked at examples of political pressure on EPA and other agencies and concluded the Bush administration had, quote, "manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings," end quote. James Connaughton finds himself on the receiving end of much of this criticism. Connaughton chairs the White House council on environmental quality. He’s the president’s coordinator and top advisor for environmental policy. Connaughton says the White House acts on only a small number of EPA issues and he denies any interference with the agency’s science.
CONNAUGHTON: Well, I think, actually, the point is the politics never interfere with the science. In fact, the administrations are charged with implementing research agendas, managing scientific enterprise, then gleaning from that information important to make policy decisions. So I think it’s actually a myth to suggest interference in the scientific process. We are actually charged with managing that process. And so, it’s not an issue of interference. It’s an issue of how you’re managing the process, what you take from the scientists and how, as a policymaker and as a communicator, you convey your own views as to what that science means to you.
YOUNG: The EPA did not make officials available for comment for this story after repeated requests over the course of a week and a half. But Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko addressed some of the criticism in a recent speech to the American Bar Association. Horinko said it’s the critics, not White House politics, hurting the agency, with what she called, quote,"debate marked by an unusual degree of rancor, stridency, and naked political partisanship," end quote. Russell Train does not consider himself a partisan critic – after all, the two presidents he served were both Republicans. Train says those administrations understood that the EPA’s integrity is at risk when it loses political independence.
TRAIN: That integrity will be progressively impaired and eventually destroyed in the public eye if it becomes simply a political instrument. I think that’s exactly it, and I think that’s what we’re going to see.
YOUNG: It’s an issue we’re sure to see more of in the coming months, especially as
the Senate considers the next EPA administrator. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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