Louisiana's Edwards Criticized for His Environment Choice

LESS than two months after his landslide victory over former David Duke, Louisiana Gov.-elect Edwin W. Edwards has alienated a part of the coalition that brought him victory. In selecting Kai Midboe to be secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Mr. Edwards said he was picking a man who "has the proper approach" when it comes to negotiating the oftentimes difficult and emotional disputes between environmentalists and Louisiana's huge petrochemical industry.But some environmental activists quickly criticized the appointment, saying that Mr. Midboe, who recently represented petroleum interests as an attorney for the Louisiana Association of Independent Producers and Royalty Owners, is more interested in the rights of oil producers than he is in the environment. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which represents more than 200 environmental groups across the state, said Midboe is "not sensitive" on environmental issues and is too "closely associated with oil and gas." Steve Cochran, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said: "One of the things that Edwards indicated he would do if elected was to give the environmental community a very important role in giving recommendations for the new head of DEQ, and in this case that simply didn't materialize." What Edwards does or doesn't do regarding the environment in Louisiana is seen as important by many here, not only because the state has one of the nation's highest earth, air, and water pollution rates, but also because during Edwards's previous three terms in office - during the 1970s, and from 1984 to 1988 - he was largely seen as a governor who took concerns about the environment somewhat lightly. But in last fall's general election campaign against Duke, Edwards reached out to the supporters of defeated incumbent governor Buddy Roemer - many of whom were originally attracted to Mr. Roemer because of his environmental and educational reforms - by promising: "We will fund the DEQ at acceptable levels. Any activity that is creating an environmental problem will be regulated and stopped." Midboe says charges that he won't be sensitive to the needs of the environment are unfair: "Everyone is focusing on the last year and a half when I represented the oil and gas industries as an attorney. But what they're overlooking is the 20 years before that of government experience dealing with environmental matters. I look at myself as someone who cares about the environment, and I think my record speaks to that." A key player in formulating and enforcing environmental policy in the past Republican gubernatorial administrations of David Treen in the early 1980s and Roemer from 1988 to 1990, Midboe also helped to negotiate a highly praised compromise leading to the protection of the state's environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin. "It was from the long negotiations concerning the Atchafalaya that I got a reputation for listening to both sides," said Midboe. He added that "my goal right now in approaching every environmental problem Louisiana is facing will be to work with both the environmentalists and the industrialists. The biggest fear that many people have here is us returning to the confrontational mode of the past few years. I think everyone wants to move forward." Midboe said Edwards has also given him complete autonomy in his role as head of the DEQ, which has an annual budget of $65 million and more than 800 employees. Whatever Edwards does with Louisiana's environment, though, will be of less concern to voters initially than matters pertaining to the state's depressed economy. Susan Howell, a pollster at the University of New Orleans, said, "As an issue, the environment is pretty much swamped by ... other concerns." But if Edwards did something that was seen to be bad for the environment, she said, "his popularity would obviously be lowered."

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