Christine Todd Whitman Nominated for Top EPA Job

By Cat Lazaroff and Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 22, 2000 (ENS) - President Elect George W. Bush has named New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman as his nominee for administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Whitman's nomination drew cautious optimism from some environmental groups, and harsh criticism from others.

Whitman

During a visit to a state park in April, Whitman discussed clean water with Sussex County students (Four photos courtesy Office of the Governor)
Whitman, a Republican who has served as New Jersey governor since 1993, has compiled a mixed record when it comes to the environmental protection. She has been a strong proponent of smart growth in her state, but sources within the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection warn that Whitman may not be as environmentally friendly as the Bush team is suggesting.

"Governor Christie Todd Whitman is a chief executive who understands the importance of a clean and healthy environment, and will ensure that environmental regulations are based on sound science," said Bush. "As Governor, Christie Todd Whitman had great success in cleaning up the environment in New Jersey, and she will bring that same expertise and experience with her to the Environmental Protection Agency."

"I know that this great country of ours has the ability and the will to build a more prosperous America while meeting our environmental obligations to those who follow us," said Whitman on accepting the nomination.

Whitman's administration has developed an award winning sustainable development program that aims to protect open space, redevelop urban areas, discourage new sprawling development, and encourage environmentally sustainable business practices such as recycling, energy conservation and pollution reduction.

She supported legislation providing $10 million for the preservation of Sterling Forest. She helped increase state funding for shore protection, which led to New Jersey being recognized by the National Resource Defense Council for having the most comprehensive beach monitoring system in the nation.

canoeing

Whitman canoes through Mill Creek before giving remarks on the Mill Creek Wetlands Enhancement Project in April. The project, administered by the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, will rehabilitate 143 acres of degraded wetlands
Whitman has pushed other Republican governors to support efforts to reduce soot and smog air pollution.

In 1998, Governor Whitman signed major clean water legislation to grant up to $100 million in loans to local governments and water authorities for clean water and drinking water projects.

Whitman was a strong supporter of a bond program approved by New Jersey voters in 1998 to purchase open space, as well as a 1999 bill to provide funding to preserve one million acres of land in the state by 2009.

"We are cautiously optimistic about the direction that Governor Bush appears to be moving with some of his environmental appointments," said League of Conservation Voters (LCV) political director Betsy Loyless. "While Governor Whitman has been criticized by state environmental groups for her record on protecting the state's air and water, she has also promoted environmentally responsible programs in her state. Her appointment could be an important indicator that Bush, who as governor appointed only industry representatives to head Texas' environmental agency, is willing to move in the right direction on environmental issues."

As administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Whitman, 54, will oversee the agency responsible for establishing and enforcing environmental standards. She will also oversee the agency's environmental research and make recommendations to the President on environmental policy.

governors

New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman and New York Governor George Pataki enjoy a walk outside the Bear Mountain Inn following closing ceremonies for the acquisition of 15,000 acres of land to preserve Sterling Forest, the largest state park in the New York state. The preservation of Sterling Forest will protect the water supply for two million New Jerseyans
Whitman has come under fire from state environmentalists for making staff cuts at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Critics argue that a number of her actions and policies have limited the ability of the state environmental agency to monitor and enforce pollution controls.

For example, under her tenure 2000 chemicals were delisted from the state right to know list of toxic substances.

In 1997, the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Protection (PEER) surveyed New Jersey DEP employees. Among the questions the groups asked was, "In your opinion, what is the biggest problem facing New Jersey DEP?"

Some respondents said that Whitman herself was DEP's biggest problem, PEER said.

scope

Whitman looks through a spotting scope to observe two eaglets nesting in Lower Alloways Creek, one of New Jersey's most popular bird watching sites
"Governor Whitman is big money and big business. She has destroyed this Department!!!" wrote one respondent self identified as a DEP administrator. All respondents to the survey were kept anonymous.

PEER has publicized these other responses regarding the DEP's biggest problem:

Yet groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club say that Whitman is someone they can work with on environmental protection, though they note that they will be watching closely to make sure she adequately protects natural resources and environmental treasures.

"The EPA Administrator's primary responsibility is to enforce the nation's environmental standards, but by cutting New Jersey's environmental budget, Governor Whitman hampered her state's efforts," said Sierra Club director Carl Pope. "As EPA Administrator, Governor Whitman would have a duty to fight for funding to effectively enforce the standards that protect our families from pollution. For that reason, we hope the Senate will press her about the need to enforce strong, mandatory environmental standards."

WHITMAN FACES SENATE HURDLES

Whitman's confirmation in the Republican controlled Senate may hinge on her willingness to extend statutory protections to the EPA's embattled ombudsman office, a variety of sources tell ENS.

Browner, Fields

EPA Assistant Administrator Tim Fields, right, chats with current EPA Administrator Carol Browner at a recent event in Washington. Fields and Browner are both political appointees of the outgoing Clinton Administration. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Her appointment may also depend on her willingness to reinstate an ombudsman investigator who was recently removed from his casework by a political appointee of the outgoing Clinton administration, ENS has learned.

The EPA ombudsman's office is responsible for investigating citizen and congressional complaints lodged against the agency's implementation of the federal Superfund initiative and other hazardous waste cleanup programs. Headed up by attorney Robert Martin, the tiny watchdog office has been a major thorn in the side of the EPA, exposing a host of flawed cleanup plans and a rash of government and polluter collusion.

The office is revered by a contingent of influential Republican lawmakers who have used its investigatory functions to examine controversial Superfund sites located in their districts. In a number of instances, the ombudsman's office uncovered evidence showing that EPA backed cleanup schemes were not protective of public health and the environment.

Though embarrassing for the agency, these revelations have been discussed at public meetings across the country, as well as in Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill.

But the office is on shaky ground, as it has been operating without statutory authority since 1989. EPA management has been supporting the office as a matter of policy, but critics maintain that the present setup has severely compromised the independence and powers of the office.

Those fears came to a head last week, when the office's lead investigator, Hugh Kaufman, was relieved of his duties by EPA hazardous waste chief Tim Fields. Kaufman maintains that he was sacked because his casework findings embarrassed the EPA, and may have cost unsuccessful presidential candidate Al Gore crucial votes in the battleground states of Ohio and Florida.

kaufman

Hugh Kaufman at an EPA ombudsman hearing in Denver, Colorado, earlier this year. Kaufman, an aggressive investigator, says he was ousted from his job because his findings were embarrassing for the EPA and failed presidential candidate Al Gore. (Photo by Mark Slupe, courtesy of the Colorado Daily)
Kaufman, a 30 year EPA veteran who helped to craft many of the nation's hazardous waste laws, was removed from his duties in the ombudsman's office just one day after Gore conceded the extraordinary election to Bush. Fields, who reassigned Kaufman to other duties, is a political appointee of the outgoing Clinton administration.

Fields has denied that politics or revenge played any role in his decision to remove Kaufman from the ombudsman's office. But Kaufman's influential supporters do not buy that explanation.

Senator Wayne Allard, a Republican from Colorado, called the move "vindictive." Allard has called on Fields to reinstate Kaufman before the new administration assumes power on January 20, and he intends to make the viability of the ombudsman's office a "major" part of Whitman's confirmation process, said Sean Conway, his press secretary.

"Senator Allard would be deeply disappointed if Governor Whitman was not open to the idea of making sure that the ombudsman's office is fully staffed and is able to carry out its duties," Conway said. "It is a major priority for him."

Allard

Senator Wayne Allard, a Republican from Colorado, enlisted the help of Kaufman and the ombudsman's office to uncover the truth about the Shattuck Chemical Superfund site in Denver. (Photo courtesy of the Senator's office)
Allard has authored a bill that would reauthorize the statutory authority of the ombudsman's office. The measure is designed to give the office more independence from EPA management, which Allard and other observers feel is attempting to gut the powers of the internal watchdog agency.

Allard plans to meet with Whitman prior to her confirmation hearing to "impress upon her" how important the ombudsman's function is, and how crucial it is that the office receive the statutory protections that it needs, Conway said.

"The Senator expects that to be a very positive and fruitful process," said Conway. "He is going to make that a major issue of her confirmation process."

Allard is working to get Kaufman reinstated to his investigatory role before the Clinton administration leaves office, Conway said. But if that does not occur, Allard will ask Whitman to look into the matter, Conway said.

Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, may also make Kaufman and the status of the ombudsman's office issues in Whitman's confirmation hearings, sources tell ENS.