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Environment's Uneasy Ally

May 22, 2003

No one knows better than Christie Whitman how difficult it is to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in an administration that mostly gives lip service to protecting the environment. No doubt that situation has produced many uncomfortable days for Whitman, and it isn't a shock that she has decided to leave the Bush administration effective June 27. Swimming against your instincts wears one down.

Still, the nation's environment is in somewhat better condition than it might have been had someone with less dedication to the EPA's goals held the job for the last 2 1/2 years. For that, Whitman deserves thanks and good wishes.

"There have been some issues where ... I pushed back against some of the other forces" in the White House, Whitman told The Times' Elizabeth Shogren in an interview in February.

In one case, Whitman resisted efforts to begin a broad review of the Clean Water Act of 1972 after a Supreme Court decision provided the opening to do so. Some in the administration pressed hard to unravel the law, Whitman said, but she prevailed.

Environmentalists -- dubious about her almost from the outset after she reversed herself to support President Bush's turnabout on an international treaty on global warming -- gave Whitman especially poor ratings on the issue of clean air.

When Bush took office, the law required utilities to install state-of-the-art pollution control devices when they remodeled or added on to old power plants. Whitman said she found that lawsuits brought against the utilities, including one by New Jersey when she was governor, resulted in drawn-out litigation. Instead, she supported a Bush plan to offer incentives to clean up. But incentives produced meager results in the past and do not appear to work any better now.

In one embarrassing moment last year, as Whitman and Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton were lunching in Washington, the EPA office in Denver issued a letter supporting a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park -- in direct contradiction of Bush administration policy. Norton was irritated that Whitman had not told her about the surprise EPA position. Whitman said she didn't know about it either. She ordered that from then on, all such communications should be routed through Washington before they were made public.

The incident, alas, indicates that this administration places more importance on political factors than independent scientific evidence in making environmental decisions. Regrettably, a certain amount of resistance to that attitude will be lost when Whitman goes. It's a matter the Senate should consider carefully when Bush submits the name of her successor for confirmation.

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