Ever since President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency 33 years ago, the EPA has been politically pummeled from left and right.
Environmental activists see it as a muscle-bound bureaucracy, dragging its heels and caving in to political pressure. Under the Bush administration, the EPA has presided over "the largest enforcement rollback in agency history," charges Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
But to many businesses and property rights advocates, the agency's regulations and enforcement tactics smack of Big Brother. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas - a former pest exterminator who has had his own run-ins with environmental regulators - once likened the agency to "the Gestapo."
This contentious history is part of the reason the EPA has no boss at the moment. Agency administrator Christie Whitman, who announced her resignation in May, cleaned out her desk and left late last month without a replacement being named. And the closer it gets to next year's presidential election, the harder it will be to avoid a major Senate confirmation fight to fill the post. It may already be too late.
There is no doubt that environmental indicators are improving in many ways. Air pollution has declined 25 percent over the past 30 years, and the portion of Americans served by safe drinking water has risen from 79 percent to 94 percent in the past decade, according to the latest EPA figures. Still, 40 percent of US waterways are too polluted to swim or fish in, and nearly half of all Americans live in areas where the air is unhealthy at least part of the time. Hundreds of "Superfund" toxic waste sites wait to be cleaned.
Congress - including a number of important Republicans, mainly moderates from the Northeast - is acutely aware that this is a particularly vulnerable spot for Bush. Democratic presidential candidates have begun to raise the issue as well. At the same time, Bush is caught between green activists and free-market enthusiasts.
The League of Conservation Voters - the most politically aggressive national environmental group - has launched new television ads in politically important markets, such as Los Angeles, blasting Bush's record. "The Bush administration's approach to the environment demonstrates a clear bias toward the interests of the oil industry, the utility industry, and other corporate contributors at the expense of the health and safety of the public," the group said last week in its presidential report card.
At the same time, some key conservative groups are voicing disappointment with Bush as well. The Political Economy Research Center - the leading free-market advocacy group, whose experts have advised the White House - gives Bush a C-minus on how well he conducted environmental policy during his first two years.
"President Bush's administration is moving away from the principles of free-market environmentalism, when we thought he would be moving toward it," says Bruce Yandle, senior associate with the Bozeman, Mont.-based research center.
The leading candidate for EPA chief, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), might be more acceptable to conservatives than Ms. Whitman was, particularly given his belief that states should have more say in how they deal with the environment. But he already is the target of strong criticism from pro-environment activists. And in any case - as moderate Republican Whitman found out - environmental policy from arsenic levels in drinking water to Utah wilderness to global warming is run largely from the White House and not agencies like the EPA.
For example, the agency recently issued its first detailed assessment of the nation's environment - much of it showing considerable improvement in recent decades. EPA scientists had meant to include warnings about climate change induced by greenhouse gases that appear to cause global warming. But the White House ordered the agency to remove that portion of the report.
Meanwhile, Midwestern lawmakers want to change Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative," in order to give coal-fired power plants more time to lower pollution levels. In the West, Republicans and some conservative Democrats have pressured the administration to allow more road-building and logging in national forests by suing federal agencies under laws which - in the eyes of environmentalists - the administration has failed to adequately defend. And farmers and ranchers want more of the water from rivers and streams now allocated to wildlife refuges and other natural habitat.
This week, the federal government issued its annual "Toxics Release Inventory" documenting pollution from manufacturing, chemical production, mining, and other activities. Releases to the environment of the poisonous chemicals have decreased by more than half since 1988, when such reporting began.
Part of Bush's - or any president's - political problem with the environment is that the public has become increasingly aware of pollution and resource problems in its own backyard - and is now in a position to make a fuss about it. In the Internet age, anyone can track down polluters in their own community and even neighborhood, putting more pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to find remedies.People can type their ZIP code in the EPA's website (www.epa.gov), and see a list of polluters in their area.
More than one month has passed since Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey, announced her resignation. Last week, her principal deputy, Linda Fisher (a former lobbyist for the Monsanto Company thought to have been a candidate for the top job), resigned as well. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a major national environmental group, points to two major accomplishments of the EPA during Whitman's tenure: Cleaning up highly toxic PCBs in New York's Hudson River and agreeing to cut pollution from diesel engines on tractors, bulldozers, and other off-road vehicles.
But Whitman often found herself at odds with the White House. Secretary of State Colin Powell once likened her to a "wind dummy," the term for an object tossed from an airplane to check wind direction before paratroopers jump. It's not a position likely to attract an enthusiastic successor.