Political Storm Clouds Gather Ahead of Leavitt Hearing
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, September 22, 2003 (ENS) - President George W. Bush promotes Utah Republican Governor Mike Leavitt as a consensus builder who is the ideal candidate to take the reins at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But critics say Leavitt's environmental record is no cause for cheer and are keen to use his confirmation hearings to expose the Bush administration's indifference to the environment and the agency Leavitt has been asked to lead.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold its first confirmation hearing for Leavitt tomorrow and Senate Democrats are likely to use the event as a chance to bash the environmental record of the Bush administration.
At least three Senate Democrats - including two who want to replace President Bush - have said they will block the Senate from voting on Leavitt's nomination until the administration has explained an array of environmental policies.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton says she will block Leavitt's nomination in protest of an internal EPA report that found the administration may have misled the public about the air quality in downtown Manahattan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
North Carolina Senator John Edwards announced last week he will hold up Leavitt's nomination until the EPA responds to a request for a study of the human health impacts of the Bush administration's changes to federal clean air rules.
And Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman says he will block the nomination until Leavitt answers prehearing questions submitted on September 5.
"I am outraged that Governor Leavitt, under orders from the White House, will not answer my prehearing questions regarding his nomination as EPA Administrator," Lieberman said last week. "It fits an all too familiar pattern of White House stonewalling and information control, especially on the environment and public health."
"The American people deserve to know if Governor Leavitt will assert EPA's independence when it comes to the public health and the environment, or will toe the White House's polluter-friendly line," said Lieberman. "I will maintain my hold on Governor Leavitt's confirmation until he provides straight answers to these critical questions."
Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, bristled at Lieberman's criticism of the White House and Leavitt.
Inhofe said "subjecting an EPA administrator nominee to answer prehearing questions is unprecedented for the Environment and Public Works Committee," and he accused Lieberman of playing politics.
There is little question that politics is heavily involved - Lieberman and Edwards are declared candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination - and Democrats see Bush's environmental record as ripe for attack.
Critics say President Bush has the worst environmental record of any American president and many believe the EPA Administrator is merely a figurehead for the White House.
But Utah environmentalists say Leavitt's record should add to the concern of those who dislike the Bush environmental policies.
"The people of the United States deserve clean water and clean air, but it does not appear the Bush administration shares this goal," said Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The nomination of Governor Leavitt will only further this trend of less environmental protection."
In a press conference today, they said Leavitt has done a poor job enforcing environmental laws against major polluters in Utah, has a record of making critical environmental policy decisions without regard for public involvement, and has a history of demoting state scientists and ignoring science that supports environmental conservation and public health protection.
"There has been some discussion that Governor Leavitt is some kind of moderate on the environment but a review of his record shows otherwise," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
Frankel notes that under Leavitt's leadership, the state is tied for last among U.S. states for enforcement of the Clean Water Act and has the second highest amount of toxic chemical releases in the nation.
The environmental advocates say that from 1995 to 2002, Utah power plants increased emissions of nitrogen oxides while the rest of the nation decreased such emissions by some 21 percent on average.
The Utah environmentalists criticized Leavitt for his support of a controversial highway project that could harm wetlands along the Great Salt Lake. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the project because the Environmental Impact Statement failed to look at less environmentally harmful alternatives and ignored impacts on Utah's wildlife and environment.
On Leavitt's watch, the state failed to press a magnesium ore facility listed by the EPA as one of the nation's worst polluters to reduce its pollution or end illegal dumping until the EPA stepped in.
"If he carries out the agenda at national level that he has at the state level, the EPA will be nothing more than a toothless watchdog," said Jason Groenewald, director of the group Families Against Incinerator Risk.
Some would say that the EPA is already a toothless watchdog. Enforcement, and funding for enforcement, have both dropped significantly under the Bush administration.
Congress has done little to help the agency either, and a September 8 memo by the EPA Chief Financial Officer warned that the EPA's core programs face "significant reductions."
Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law firm, today also came out against the Leavitt nomination - marking the first time the organization has ever opposed a nominee for EPA administrator. Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice, said Leavitt's track record on environmental issues - and public land issues - merits such opposition.
"Governor Leavitt's nomination raises the strong possibility that his practice of using concealment and secrecy to weaken environmental protections will be institutionalized at EPA," said Parker, whose organization has been critical of the Bush administration.
But Leavitt supporters say much of the criticism of the Utah governor is politically based and unfair. Businesses and industry groups are behind Leavitt, and supporters note that his nomination has received some degree of support from the head of Environmental Defense, Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening.
Leavitt lobbied against storage of high level nuclear waste in Utah, and supporters point to his work with the National Governors Association (NGA). Many of Leavitt's NGA colleagues have also expressed support for his nomination. The three term Utah governor has adopted many positions of the NGA, which generally support more authority for states with regard to environmental regulations. For instance, Leavitt supports more state autonomy on brownfields and Superfund cleanups, as does the National Governors Association.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration is firmly behind Leavitt and is continuing to talk with senators to assure his confirmation.
"He has a proven record of building consensus and bringing people together to achieve meaningful results that improve our environment, that improve our air quality, that protect the land, that improve our water quality," said McClellan. "So the President will continue to urge the Senate to move forward quickly on his nomination because this is an important position."
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