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Pin Him Down on Pollution

September 25, 2003

California's clean-air efforts, after years of hard-won progress, are faltering. It had been six years since ozone -- an invisible gas and the main ingredient in smog -- blanketed the Greater Los Angeles area as insidiously as it did this summer.

As you read this, however, President Bush's Environmental Protection Agency is aggressively trying to undermine California standards that might restore progress against those clouds of damaging smog. The EPA has called, for example, for eliminating California's unique ability under the federal Clean Air Act to set emissions standards higher than those of other states. Late last month, Justice Department officials sided with oil companies and engine manufacturers in a Supreme Court case challenging Southern California smog rules that require cleaner-running school buses, trash trucks, airport shuttles and taxis, street sweepers and utility trucks.

That's why the seemingly dry and political struggle going on in the Senate over whether to confirm former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as the EPA's next administrator should matter to all Californians. Like former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, who resigned four months ago, Leavitt is considered a moderate. So far, senators have unfortunately let Leavitt dodge questions about the administration's decisions to relax air pollution standards for aging coal-fired power plants, its orders to slow down Superfund toxic site cleanups and reversal of the president's campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

The Senate should withhold its support until Leavitt addresses these questions more candidly than he did at Tuesday's confirmation hearing.

The Senate's task is more challenging than simply saying yea or nay to this nomination -- whether to "love it or Leavitt," as pundits have quipped. Senators should recognize this as one of the few moments when they wield significant leverage over Bush's environmental policies.

Lawmakers should use that clout to pressure the Bush administration to level with the public about dangers related to pollution at New York City's ground zero, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) has asked, and to support a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to add carbon dioxide to the list of conventional pollutants -- sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury -- that the president's Clear Skies initiative proposes to regulate.

Compelling Leavitt and the Bush administration to go on record in responding to difficult questions is the least senators can do, given the rarity of this chance to demand some curbs on the sacking of environmental protections.

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