WASHINGTON — In his first major speech since becoming Environmental Protection Agency administrator four weeks ago, Mike Leavitt pledged Tuesday to lead the country toward the "most productive period of air-quality improvement in American history."
Speaking to several thousand EPA employees in an ornate downtown Washington auditorium, Leavitt sought to improve the impression some Americans have of Bush's commitment to protecting the nation's air, water, lands and wildlife.
Leavitt said he would unveil his 500-day plan for cleaning the air "very soon." Hours later, after a draft of his plan to regulate mercury pollution from power plants was leaked to reporters, Leavitt provided the first glimpse of how he would pursue this agenda.
He said his market-based approach to reducing mercury would work faster than traditional regulation. But environmentalists disagreed, calling the proposal a squandered opportunity to protect public health.
Other components of Leavitt's air-improvement plan include stringent controls on diesel engines and ground-level smog standards based on local health needs. The central element, he said, would be President Bush's "Clear Skies" legislation, which environmentalists derided as too weak to curb pollution from power plants.
Leavitt's inaugural address as EPA administrator set a high bar against which his accomplishments may be measured, and it won a standing ovation from EPA career bureaucrats, many of whom are dedicated environmentalists.
"The challenge administrator Leavitt will face is how to achieve important lofty goals in an agency that has been under siege and has lost its sense of mission," said Vickie Patton, a lawyer for the group Environmental Defense.
With a homespun story about a visit to the president's ranch in Texas, Leavitt painted an image of Bush as someone with a deep "love of land."
One reason he took the job, Leavitt said, was "a commitment that I felt from the president himself to create a faster tempo of improvement" in the environment.
Leavitt arrived in Washington after 13 years as the governor of Utah, and the trappings of his speech seemed more suited to a governor's address to a state legislature than a speech to employees of a federal agency. He read from Teleprompters, his face was magnified on two large screens, and his audience was seated in a large hall with soaring columns, gold trim and chandeliers topped by eagles.
In an interview after his speech, Leavitt avoided questions about whether Bush's environmental record had acquired a negative image. Instead, he stressed his positive role in leading the EPA while it charts the course to "accelerate the velocity of improvement" in air quality.
"My grandchildren will not be familiar with the puff of black smoke coming out of a diesel truck or a bus, they won't know black smoke out of construction equipment," Leavitt said. "That's very serious progress."
Meanwhile, the environmental community was focused on a leaked draft of the administration's plan to regulate mercury emissions from power plants. The proposal would abandon the requirement that each facility use maximum pollution-control devices. Instead, a cap would be set for emissions industrywide, and power plants that emitted less than their share of the national total could trade their pollution-reduction credits for cash with plants that were slower to reduce emissions. Emissions would drop from 48 tons a year now to 34 tons a year beginning in 2010.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to fetuses. It migrates from the air to ground water, and humans become exposed by eating seafood tainted with it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that one in 12 women of childbearing age has blood mercury levels exceeding what EPA considers safe for fetuses, and 41 states have advisories on eating local fish because of high mercury levels.
Leavitt argued that the cap-and-trade system would "achieve substantially greater reductions in mercury emissions over the next 15 years" than would traditional regulations. "This is the first time mercury has been regulated from power plants," he said. "It moves us down the road toward better air."
But environmentalists and state regulators argued that more significant reductions were possible.
"Rather than take this issue head on and respond to the courts and the Clean Air Act, they are backing off and allowing public health and the environment to suffer," said S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.
Leavitt said market-based approaches, including his for mercury, were vital to achieving cleaner air.
"The cap-and-trade approach shows us again and again that people do more and they do it faster when they have an incentive to do what's in the public's interest," Leavitt said in his speech.
Some EPA officials quietly criticized the agency for failing to analyze the feasibility of more stringent policies, as it usually does.
But representatives of the utility industry cautioned that more restrictive regulations would force utilities to switch from coal to natural gas, which could increase consumers' costs.
This could have "devastating" impacts, especially for low-income Americans, said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of utilities.
The administration's proposal for regulating mercury would closely resemble the mercury provisions in the Clear Skies proposal.
Leavitt stressed that the administration remained determined to pass the legislation, which also would use similar market-based approaches to cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which cause acid rain and respiratory illness.