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Democrats' Wrath Awaits EPA Nominee

Utah governor must account for Bush's environmental policies, the senators say.

September 23, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, President's Bush's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has been busy running his state during the first 2 1/2 years of the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, Senate Democrats will call on him today to account for administration policies that they believe have weakened environmental protection.

The Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and their leader, independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont, plan to use Leavitt's confirmation hearing to draw attention to the Bush administration's easing of regulations to enable power plants to avoid cleaning up, to permit coal companies to keep practicing mountaintop-removal mining, and to allow the Defense Department to sell PCB-polluted sites without first cleaning them.

"He will have to explain to the committee and the American public why this administration is determined to weaken our environmental laws," Jeffords said.

Leavitt, 52, refused to comment before the hearing on his record as governor or on administration policies. But in nominating Leavitt, Bush said he was choosing a like-minded, states-rights Republican who preferred voluntary cleanups by industry to mandatory government laws.

At least three committee Democrats -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have put holds on the confirmation. By custom, the full Senate will not have a confirmation vote as long as even one senator has a hold in effect.

Clinton said she would block Leavitt's nomination unless the White House adequately responded to her request for information about why it edited EPA news releases warning people about the air pollution caused when the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11.

"The White House directed the experts at the EPA to take out accurate information and put in reassuring language that deprived a lot of those workers and residents and volunteers of the data they needed to make decisions for themselves," Clinton said. "That was wrong and inexcusable."

Edwards said he will hold up the confirmation process until the administration responds to his year-old request for a study of the health consequences of "rollbacks" to the Clean Air Act.

Lieberman said his hold would remain in force until he and the other senators received answers to questions. The White House told the panel's Democrats last week that Leavitt would not answer the questions.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee's chairman, defended Leavitt, saying it would have been "unprecedented" for the nominee to answer pre-hearing questions. He stressed that every member of the committee was offered an individual meeting with Leavitt.

He and other Republicans on the panel back Leavitt's nomination, and most back the administration's environmental record.

Last year and again last month, the EPA relaxed rules requiring major polluters such as power plants to install up-to-date pollution control devices when they repair or modernize plants and increase emissions.

"The nomination will not go forward until this administration commits to giving us the truth about how Clean Air Act rollbacks are going to affect our kids with asthma and seniors with health problems," Edwards said. Administration officials expect the changes to the "new source review" provision of the act to have a "neutral" effect on emissions and public health.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), another panel member, plans to focus her questions on toxic waste sites, her spokesman said. She was angered that the administration last month allowed the military and other owners of sites tainted with PCBs, among the most dangerous chemicals, to sell their properties without first cleaning them. She is also alarmed that the Superfund, the trust fund that paid to clean up the properties with the most toxic contamination, is about to run out of money from an expired tax on industry, a major funding source.

Opposing senators hoped Leavitt's confirmation process would provide an opportunity to remind the public of the ways the administration had weakened environmental protections. "If the Bush administration believes that the American public will not hold them accountable for these actions against our environment, they are gravely mistaken," Jeffords said Monday.

Some senators also planned to press Leavitt about what direction he would take on key policy decisions, such as setting limits on mercury emissions from power plants and rewriting rules that govern which waterways and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act.

Utah environmental groups said Leavitt was the wrong person to control wetlands because he pushed a parkway project that would cut through wetlands along the Great Salt Lake. The groups recently won a lawsuit over the issue, and the highway has been put on hold.

Aides said several senators were considering asking Leavitt what he knew about bribes given to International Olympic Committee members to persuade them to choose Utah as the host of the 2002 Winter Games.

Leavitt, a leader of the group organized to woo the committee, is expected to be called to testify in the trial of Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, who face federal prosecution on charges related to the bribes, said Bill Taylor, Welch's attorney. The trial is scheduled to start next month. Leavitt has denied knowledge of the bribes.

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