EPA pick may find it's not easy being green

Governor Whitman gets a mixed grade from environmentalists, and her own party.

Hardly anyone is going to mistake New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for an environmentalist. But, for a Republican, she does have a green tint.

Precisely what shade her policies are will become clearer when, if as expected, she wins approval as President-elect George W. Bush's nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The nation's new environmental chief will have to make tough decisions on everything from how aggressively to prosecute producers of hazardous waste to the implementation of clean air and water rules. Those laws are currently under attack by business interests - many of whom are supporters of President-elect Bush. Two cases being heard by the Supreme Court could severely limit the ability of the EPA to regulate the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Governor Whitman will also have to decide whether to vigorously enforce the Clinton administration's controversial clean-air rules, including regulations announced last week that are designed to drastically cut truck and bus emissions over the next 10 years. "That will be a signal of the EPA's willingness to use its enforcement teeth," says the Sierra Club's Allen Mattison.

One of the first tests of the New Jersey governor's resolve is right next door: whether to force General Electric, under the Superfund law, to pay $460 million to clean up PCBs the company legally dumped in the Hudson River decades ago. GE has vowed to fight the cleanup.

If her New Jersey record is any indication, environmentalists may be disappointed if they expect a tough litigator.

In New Jersey, her emphasis has been on resolving conflicts as amicably as possible. After she became governor in 1994, Whitman delinked state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) funds from its court successes. In the past, its budget came from the fines it levied on polluters. Whitman made funding part of the state budget and steered polluters to settle disputes outside of the courtroom. In the first four years of her administration, there was a 76 percent reduction in new DEP lawsuits.

"We wanted to resolve the problems, instead of seeing them tied up in lengthy and expensive court battles," says Amy Collings, a spokeswoman for the agency. "We wanted to see the money spent on correcting problems instead of going toward fines."

This shift has enraged some environmental groups, which contend that the state has become more polluted since Whitman took office. "Every single environmental group has given her a failing grade on the environment," says John Guinan, an attorney with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. "She has declared the state open for business."

After Whitman took office - during a state budget crisis - she reduced the DEP's staff (from 17 percent to 30 percent, depending on who you ask). Some employees had both their work hours and pay cut. "She destroyed the agency," says Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club in Princeton, N.J.

Environmental groups also fault her for not instituting a comprehensive plan for reducing auto emissions, as have California, Massachusetts, and New York. "It costs nothing to do it, but business is not fully supportive," says Mr. Guinan. (The state says it has made sure all cars must pass federal standards.)

But there is a green side to the governor. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and Whitman has battled sprawl, setting aside almost $1 billion over the next 10 years to protect open spaces. One of her triumphs is the protection of Sterling Forest, about 20,000 pristine acres on the border with New York.

She has also supported EPA actions against Midwest utilities whose sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions drift east, causing acid rain. And she mandated that New Jersey power plants cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent.

Whitman has also been a protector of the lowly horseshoe crab, whose numbers were being decimated by harvesters.

"She has a very mixed record on the environment," concludes Cliff Zukin, chairman of the Public Policy Department at Rutgers University. "To say she has expertise on the environment would be a stretch, but she is a moderate Republican who has shown an interest in the environment over the last four years."

Those moderate credentials mean Whitman will face constant scrutiny from conservatives within the Republican Party.

Gary Bauer, one of Bush's former rivals, says her appointment is a "red flag" to the party's base. "It's not that I'm insisting that every post be filled with a social conservative," he says. "But she has been very aggressive on issues like abortion and gay rights.... She's gone out of her way to do things and say things about conservatives in the party."

Others, like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, are less concerned. He's said that at the EPA Whitman will at least have no direct say on social policy.

But Mr. Bauer doesn't buy that argument. "Once you have a seat at the table, you're able to jump into every debate," he says. "No one sticks to their portfolio at cabinet meetings."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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