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The Nation

As EPA Chief, Whitman Won Some Tough Fights

May 24, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In an administration committed to reducing regulations, Christie Whitman won approval of some of the toughest antipollution rules put forward in recent years.

During her nearly 2 1/2 years as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Whitman won approval of three sets of strict regulations governing harmful pollutants from diesel-powered vehicles.

The rules slash exhaust from heavy trucks and buses, construction and farm equipment, and yachts and other pleasure craft. She also initiated a voluntary campaign to cut diesel exhausts from school buses.

A pragmatist rather than an ideologue, Whitman used her close relationship with President Bush and what many describe as keen political skills to make these rules reality.

To be sure, Whitman, who announced Wednesday that she was resigning as of June 27, also approved a number of policies that most environmental and public health activists considered clear steps backward.

But as she departs, environmentalists and industry lobbyists agree that her successor will almost surely lack the clout to make as vivid a mark.

"Her efforts on diesel reflect the ability of someone in a very difficult, almost inhospitable situation, to find the opportunities to move forward in protecting human health from the harmful effects of air pollution," said Vicki Patton, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, a national environmental group.

"Our central concern is whether they'll nominate a replacement who really has a strong ethic in protecting human health and the environment and has the ability to move those kinds of public policies forward in an administration where it is going to be enormously challenging to do that," Patton added.

"I don't think you're going to see anyone with Christie Whitman's star power wanting to take the job," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for several electric utility companies. "That's going to be a detriment to any policy the administration is moving forward."

When President Bush took office, he froze all recent Clinton administration regulations so that his team could review them.

Whitman's first major action on controlling diesel pollution was to embrace a Clinton administration policy to reduce dangerous exhaust pollutants from diesel trucks and buses by 95%.

The trucking and fuel refining industries and their supporters in Congress leaned on the new EPA boss to weaken the new regulations. They failed.

"To me the benefits were so clear ... it was a no-brainer to go forward with that," Whitman said in an interview Friday.

Diesel exhausts are linked to asthma attacks, cancer, endocrine disruption, heart and lung illness and premature death.

Whitman said her experience during tough negotiations with businesses as New Jersey governor helped her resist pressure from the industry and Congress.

Persuading others in the administration was not as hard as some people might think, she added. "The president isn't afraid of new regulations," Whitman said. "He wants to make sure they're really going to make a positive difference for the cost."

And her years as governor "showed you can have a healthy environment and a growing economy," she said.

Earlier this spring, Whitman won rare accolades from environmentalists and public health advocates when she proposed a policy that would cut the harmful exhausts from tractors, bulldozers and other off-road diesel vehicles by 90% or more.

"It will have the most immediate effect on human health of any of the things we've done," Whitman said.

Whitman conceded that her high political profile and friendship with the president helped her in negotiations with members of Congress, industry representatives and administration colleagues.

Some environmentalists worry whoever takes Whitman's job won't have the commitment or political weight to make sure the diesel rules take effect.

"Without her there and without her direct personal involvement," Patton asked, "what will happen to this proposal?"

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) said Whitman played a key role in the enactment of a law to stimulate redevelopment of abandoned or underused industrial and commercial properties.

Bush supported the bill. "But she was the agent and the quarterback that accomplished it," he said.

Some environmentalists said Whitman succeeded with the diesel rules because the industries hurt by them did not have much sway in the White House.

Her record was different with electric power companies. For example, she initiated industry-friendly changes to a Clean Air Act provision requiring power plants and other big polluting industries to install modern pollution controls when they renovate their facilities in ways that could increase emissions.

Also, in the early weeks of the administration, Whitman spoke about plans to regulate power plants' emissions of carbon dioxide. But when Bush reversed his campaign promise to do so, she abruptly dropped any such talk and defended his new position.

Whitman was also criticized for failing to crack down on air and water pollution from large factory farms, weakening protections for wetlands and changing regulations to enable the continuation of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

"Had she been operating in a less hostile environment, I'm sure she would have been able to accomplish a lot of positive things," said David Hawkins, director of the climate center of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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