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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

EPA Watchdog

Air Date: Week of September 29, 2006

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A fight's brewing over the Bush administration's choice for the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency. Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells us why this little-known position has a big impact.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Okay, quick: who’s the inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? Don’t feel too bad if you don’t know. There’s just an interim person in the position right now but while it’s an obscure job, the agency’s inspector general plays a critical role in making sure the EPA does what it’s supposed to be doing. A congressional committee is trying to choose a new inspector general for the agency. But as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, it’s having a tough time of it.

YOUNG: Reports from the EPA’s Inspector General come with bland titles, a careful tone and measured, factual language. But those quiet reports resound like thunderclaps when they expose agency shortcomings. For example, the IG, as it’s known, recently reported on the EPA’s Environmental Justice program. An executive order from the president told EPA to make sure its actions did not put low income and minority communities at greater risk from environmental health threats. That order was signed in 1994.

BULLARD: After 12 years you would think that those things would be in place and that we would have a system of determining whether or not the executive order is implemented.

YOUNG: That’s Robert Bullard. He directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Bullard says the IG report shows that after more than a decade EPA is not doing the required reviews to learn how its actions affect the poor and people of color. Nearly 90 percent of EPA personnel surveyed said no one in the agency even asked them to do those reviews.

BULLARD: These studies really point out inadequacies and just the fact that EPA at the top has really not taken environmental justice seriously. And because of that, people on the ground in communities that are hurting and suffering, they’re paying the price and the price is with their health.

YOUNG: The IG report confirmed Bullard’s suspicions and allowed him to press for change at the agency. EPA says it will accept the report’s recommendations. The IG office guards against waste, fraud, and abuse, and evaluates how faithfully and effectively the agency enforces the law. In recent years it’s been a busy office. The IG confirmed complaints from scientists that their work was ignored when the administration proposed its rule on mercury emissions. The IG outlined problems with the agency’s communication of health risks at ground zero after 9/11. And the IG found that White House changes to rules on power plants hindered enforcement of the Clean Air Act.
Time and again it is an inspector general report that gives the clearest picture of whether the environment is really being protected

SCHAEFFER: We need some part of the government where people are paid to look at the facts and only the facts. Not to stick their finger up and see which way the political wind’s blowing.

YOUNG: Eric Schaeffer directs the advocacy group environmental integrity project. He used to head enforcement at EPA but resigned in protest over changes to air quality rules.
Schaeffer says he always respected the inspector general’s work, even when he was on the receiving end of a report. He calls it one of the most important and difficult jobs in the agency.

SCHAEFFER: You need to have a good head for investigation, you need to be ruthlessly nonpartisan and you need to be fearless. You’re gonna take heat. You can’t be worried all the time about whether you’re gonna be invited to the tea party.

YOUNG: Schaeffer says EPA’s last Inspector General, Nikki Tinsley, had those qualities. She took fierce criticism from Republican Senator James Inhofe, who called her reports politically motivated attacks on the Bush administration. Tinsley retired last year. Now Congress is considering her replacement.

BEEHLER: It is a great honor and privilege to be here today as the nominee to be Inspector General of Environmental Protection Agency.

YOUNG: Alex Beehler is the Bush administration’s choice. Beehler told the Senate’s environment committee he’d bring the same professional approach to EPA he now uses as the top environmental official for the Defense Department.

BEEHLER: Through independent and measuring thinking, sound judgement and common
sense, respect for the rule of law with the highest ethical standards.

YOUNG: But California’s Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer says Beehler’s resume makes him the wrong person for the job.

BOXER: I just don’t see how his career thus far gets him ready for this important task.

YOUNG: Boxer says Beehler tried to exempt the defense department from environmental laws and delay cleanup of contaminated military property. Beehler did not deny seeking the exemptions, which the military argued were needed for training and readiness. He says the contamination in question needed further study. Beehler also worked with Koch Industries, a corporation that paid tens of millions in fines for oil spills. The company also faced dozens of federal criminal charges for failing to disclose toxic air emissions but the Bush administration dropped most of those charges. Koch also supports conservative groups that oppose environmental regulation. Boxer says one of Beehler’s jobs was to dole out that money.

BOXER: Since you’ve done that I just don’t think—and maybe I’m wrong again—that you would have a deep-seated belief that these statutes should be defended.

YOUNG: Boxer pledges to block Beehler’s nomination. A committee vote was twice postponed and will now wait until Congress reconvenes after the November election.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

 

Links

EPA Inspector General Office

Environmental Justice Resource Center Comments on EPA's Environmental Justice Program

 

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