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Nominee to Head EPA Runs Into Political Furor

Senators angry with administration policy confront Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.

September 24, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, President Bush's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, said after facing hostile questioning from Senate Democrats that he had decided to accept the position because he felt deeply about improving the country's environment.

"I have a passion to assure that the American people have a clean, safe and healthy place to live, and I have optimism that we can in fact increase the velocity of environmental progress in this country and do so without compromising our economic competitiveness," Leavitt said immediately after a hearing on his confirmation.

Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee listed a long series of environmental policy changes made by the Bush administration that they said had weakened environmental protections, and they pressed Leavitt to commit to another path.

"You've got a lot of guts taking this job," said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "You're in a big hole to start."

Republicans defended the administration's environmental record and called on Leavitt to continue the practice of easing regulations that they said hurt efficiency and heaped needless complications and delays on businesses.

"President Bush and Mike Leavitt will lead us into a new era of environmental protection," said committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).

If he is confirmed, Leavitt, 52, will step into a job that has become a lightning rod in the Bush administration.

Environmentalists and congressional Democrats have steadily criticized the agency's actions, and industry groups have been constantly pressing for what they call regulatory relief.

"For a Republican, probably the most difficult job in the federal government is the administrator of EPA," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a former governor. "No matter what you do -- it is not good enough and is always attacked by environmental groups."

Bush's first EPA administrator, Christie Whitman, left the job this summer, becoming one of the first Cabinet-level officials to depart.

Even Leavitt's confirmation process shows the controversial nature of the job. So far three Democratic senators -- Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have said they will hold up a Senate vote to confirm Leavitt until the administration provides them with answers they have been seeking. The committee is expected to vote Oct. 1 on Leavitt's confirmation, after the governor has replied to scores of written questions from the senators.

Republican committee aides predicted that the administration would provide the necessary information in time for senators to remove their holds, allowing a vote to proceed. But Democratic Senate aides said the holds could delay the confirmation for weeks or months. By Senate custom, it takes only one senator to block a vote on a presidential nominee.

Leavitt said he was ready for the battles the job will entail.

"I don't have any illusions that it's an easy job," Leavitt told reporters after the hearing. "The president has asked that I do it, and I am going to give every ounce of energy I have to move the environmental agenda of this country."

Leavitt said his experience as a governor for more than 10 years had shown him that it was possible to build environmental consensus.

"Solutions to these problems are found in the productive middle; rarely are they found at the extremes," Leavitt told the senators.

The governor helped coin a term for his environmental philosophy, "enlibra," by which he means to move toward balance. As a successful example of that philosophy in action, Leavitt cited his effort at bringing together Western governors, Indian tribes, environmental groups and big polluters to craft an approach to fight regional haze.

Even a committee Democrat, Thomas Carper of Delaware, who worked with Leavitt when they both were governors, lauded Leavitt's skill at "getting people to gather around a consensus."

But Utah environmentalists who traveled to Washington to oppose the governor's confirmation listed many examples of Leavitt's ignoring them when they were attempting to draw his attention to the state's acute environmental problems.

They said Leavitt had repeatedly sided with industry over environmental protection. For example, US Magnesium, formerly MagCorp, was listed by the EPA as one of the nation's worst polluters, but the state did not crack down. The company started cleaning up only after the EPA launched enforcement actions against it.

In the hearing, however, Democratic senators focused not on Leavitt's environmental record but on the Bush administration's.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California criticized the administration for failing to regulate perchlorate, a toxic rocket fuel component that pollutes water supplies, and for allowing land contaminated with PCBs, one of the most hazardous chemicals, to be sold without being cleaned up.

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