After giving states more power to protect clean air and water, the Clinton administration is threatening to take back such controls because of concerns that, in some states at least, devolution means more pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is investigating the environmental record of 12 states. More pointedly, the agency has informed Michigan and four other states that if they continue to treat polluters in a way it deems lax, it will curtail federal environmental aid and their authority to enforce related laws.
"Some state laws have just simply gone too far in relaxing environmental standards," a senior EPA official said on condition of anonymity. "Some people at the state level in recent years were caught up in the anti-environment mood that prevailed in Congress," according to the official.
At a time when the federal government is handing more control to states for everything from welfare reform to job training, the battle over environmental regulation is one area that will test the balance of power between the Clinton administration and governors - particularly Republican governors.
The federal environmental clampdown has provoked a sharp reply from state-level officials, who now handle more than 85 percent of the efforts in environmental enforcement.
"States are very concerned about what appears to be a retreat on your part from the partnership relation which had been carefully and, in some instances, painfully built over the past four years," the Environmental Council of the States said in a letter to EPA administrator Carol Browner.
The states "are disappointed to be the objects of your apparent lack of trust," according to the Washington-based council, which is made up of environmental commissioners from 50 US states and territories.
The combat between state and federal officials contradicts the tone of an EPA effort in recent years to enlist states in "partnership agreements" granting them greater enforcement power. The program, involving more than 20 states, has been driven by budget cuts, federal streamlining, and the popular but controversial political fashion of devolution.
"Since the elections in November we are seeing a slip back into very strong command and control by the EPA," says Russell Harding, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "Despite all the rhetoric about a partnership, we're going in the opposite direction and we find that very, very frustrating."
The federal-state environmental wrangle is especially bitter in Michigan, one of the most aggressive states in asserting autonomy over welfare and other programs traditionally controlled by Washington. Michigan's Republican Gov. John Engler has recently denounced the EPA for what he says is micromanaging, meddling, and partisan assaults on Republican-run states.
"We're still using the 1970s mindset where states have to be micromanaged and every aspect of our programs reviewed - it's not unlike welfare reform, where the infinite wisdom resides within the Beltway and states will rush to the bottom and not do the right thing," says Mr. Harding.
The EPA disagrees. "We are not micromanaging; we allow the states tremendous leeway," says the EPA official: "All we ask is that they maintain standards that ensure a solid floor for environmental protection."
Most recently, Ms. Browner informed Mr. Engler that the EPA would disregard the state's resistance and soon issue an advisory about the potential dangers from consuming Great Lakes salmon.
Michigan is the only Great Lakes state that has refused to issue warnings about the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the region's salmon. Advocates of a warning cite studies showing that children whose mothers regularly ate lake fish during pregnancy can have developmental problems.
Browner's Feb. 12 letter was a reply to one by Mr. Engler in which he says he "will not be bullied into positions based on politics, instead of science" and accused the Clinton administration of "interfering in state policies."
The EPA has also criticized Michigan for a program allowing industries to trade credits for air emissions. The program, it says, does not set a strict enough ceiling on emissions. The agency says companies in Michigan's highly industrialized southeast corner could skirt cutbacks in air pollution by buying credits meant for industries elsewhere in the state.
Moreover, the EPA is reviewing a law passed in Michigan last year that forgoes some punishments to corporate polluters if they voluntarily reveal their wrong doing.
The EPA in principle supports "self-auditing" as an incentive for businesses to be open and self-correcting. But some state bills appear to lack teeth and defy the public's "right to know," says the senior agency official.
Consequently, the agency has warned Michigan, Colorado, Idaho, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that if it judges their laws to be soft, they will lose the authority to issue some environmental permits. The agency is considering giving similar notice to "a handful" of other states, the EPA official says.
Officials in the state's executive offices in Lansing, Mich., say the EPA's initiatives reek of partisanship: Among the five states singled out for their self-audit laws, all but Colorado have a Republican governor. The EPA last September targeted Texas, a Republican state, in a top-to-bottom investigation of its environmental enforcement.
Harding suggests that the EPA is paying back environmental groups for their contributions to Clinton's 1996 campaign. The senior EPA official replies: "That is absolutely outrageous."
The EPA's points of contention with Michigan
* It is the only state in the region that has refused to issue warnings about chemical contamination of Great Lake's salmon.
* It allows industries to trade credits for air emissions under a program the EPA considers too lax.
* It forgoes some punishments to corporate polluters if they voluntarily reveal their wrong doing.