WASHINGTON — If confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said Wednesday that she intends to "transform the way the EPA meets its mission" by seeking consensus instead of confrontation with polluters.
Although Whitman's approach worries environmental groups, which frequently criticized her actions as governor, the nominee was greeted warmly by Democrats and Republicans alike on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Whatever qualms the panel's more liberal members might have about her environmental record, they consider her more acceptable than other, more conservative candidates whom President-elect George W. Bush might have chosen.
Whitman told the committee that, as EPA's head, she would balance concern for the environment with the need for economic growth by pursuing negotiation and compromise instead of aggressive enforcement of laws and regulations. She followed that model in New Jersey, she said.
"Instilling fear does not solve problems," Whitman said. "What happens is that people back away from problem-solving and they get in a defensive mode or end up in court. And it doesn't solve the problem."
Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), usually an outspoken partisan, introduced Whitman to the committee by saying that Bush "has made a very wise selection."
And although Democrats on the committee--including New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her first appearance on a Senate panel--questioned Whitman closely about a variety of issues during the three-hour hearing, none suggested that her confirmation is in doubt.
In her testimony, Whitman reflected on evolving public attitudes toward environmental protection over the last 30 years. "No longer do we debate about 'whether' we need to act to protect our environment. Instead, we discuss 'how' we can keep America green while keeping our economy growing."
Because of this consensus, she said, the country is "on the cusp of another major transformation.
"In my home state, we are moving beyond the 'command and control' model of mandates, regulations and litigation. We are, instead, working to forge strong partnerships among citizens, government and business that are built on trust, cooperation and shared mutual goals."
For many environmental activists, Whitman's talk of negotiating with economic interests boils down to inviting the foxes into the henhouse. They are waiting to see whether she keeps her promise to "preserve the stick of enforcement" if the carrot fails.
The activists also are focusing their fire on Gale A. Norton, the Interior secretary-designate whose views on public land use and other issues are seen as much more pro-business. "Whitman comes off as the least bad," said Arlie Schardt of Environmental Media Services. "She has some very good accomplishments but also some really bad ones." With Whitman's confirmation a foregone conclusion, Democrats concentrated on trying to win commitments from her on an array of specific issues, most of them tied to home-state concerns.
Thus Clinton quizzed Whitman about an EPA timetable for removing more than 1 million pounds of PCBs dumped into the Hudson River by General Electric over a 30-year period.
Whitman declined to commit herself to a timetable for the cleanup but noted that she has spent time in a kayak on it and indicated that she considers it a special waterway.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pressed Whitman on the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, MTBE, which reduces harmful auto emissions but also contains carcinogens that have been linked to ground water contamination in several states. Again, Whitman promised only to review the issue.
Whitman's environmental record as governor is considered mixed.
Along with seeking compromise rather than taking polluters to court--arguing that approach yields quicker results at lower cost--her New Jersey administration also reduced penalties and gave polluters grace periods to correct their violations of environmental law.
At the same time, she initiated a program to add a million acres of open space over a 10-year period. She also led a successful effort to hold coal-fired power plants in the Midwest responsible for emissions that contributed to acid rain damage in Eastern states.