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Water Safety Tops EPA Chief's List

Stephen L. Johnson says the nation's supply is vulnerable. He also discusses global climate change and treaties on the environment.

June 09, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson predicted Wednesday that safeguarding the country's water supply -- from terrorists and pollutants -- would be one of the pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century.

"I believe water, over the next decade and further, will be the environmental issue that we as a nation and, frankly, as a world will be facing," he said. Keeping the nation's water safe and secure is "an area of vulnerability for the United States and also an opportunity for us."

Johnson, the first scientist to head the Environmental Protection Agency, said in addition to helping the Department of Homeland Security protect the water supply, he wanted to find economically viable solutions for the 10% of Americans whose drinking water was not healthy. He also spoke of helping cities and municipalities improve aging water treatment facilities.

In his first interview with reporters since being confirmed by the Senate last month, Johnson, a 54-year-old biologist and career EPA official, talked about controversies that had plagued the agency.

Asked about charges this week by an unnamed EPA scientist that the Bush administration had watered down reports about global climate change, Johnson talked about the need for good communications -- and sound science.

"We have a number of people inside the agency and across administrations that look at the documents to try to make sure that we are staying true to the science and at the same time communicating effectively," he said.

"And on any particular issue, if the way it is said isn't your particular leaning or viewpoint, then you say, 'You've compromised the science,' or 'You haven't done a good job of communicating.' "

Johnson conceded the existence of climate change, but was not ready to predict its severity or its causes. "My focus is on advancing technologies and achieving real results," he said.

He praised a program he called Methane to Market, which captured methane gases for energy use.

"The answer is going to be the technologies," he said. "Why aren't we focusing on making that a reality rather than the rhetoric of global climate change?"

A native of Washington, Johnson said that after almost 25 years at the agency he was familiar with political rhetoric from the business and environmental communities, as well as from Congress, the public and the press.

"I've heard it all," he said. "I don't want to waste time focusing on the rhetoric. I want to get past that."

Johnson took Congress to task for failing to ratify international environmental treaties that the United States had agreed on -- including the Persistent Organic Pollutant Treaty, which would reduce or eliminate the production, use or release of 12 toxic chemicals. The United States signed the treaty May 23, 2001. Congress has yet to approve it.

He made no mention of the U.S. refusal to sign the Kyoto international agreement to restrict greenhouse gases, which took effect in 140 nations this year. Congress and President Bush have opposed it, advocating voluntary steps.

Noting that treaties could take years to negotiate and ratify, Johnson said of the organic pollutant pact: "Frankly, I don't want to wait."

Johnson said although he would prefer a legislative solution to a regulatory one, he would forge ahead if Congress did not act -- as the EPA did in March in issuing a rule limiting mercury emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants.

"We've got a mercury problem internationally," Johnson said. He said he hoped to share "the very technologies that we're going to use in the United States for dealing with mercury control" -- such as activated carbon injection or carbon sequestration -- with countries contributing to the problem, such as China.

He advocated bridging shortfalls in the nation's energy supply with alternatives from nuclear to solar, and he foresaw the day when environmental requirements could be "the driver" of economic progress.

"We, as a nation, are facing significant shortfalls," he said. "Either we at EPA can be a stumbling block or we can provide incentives."

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