The president-elect promised change but changing the Environmental Protection Agency might be a tough job. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spoke with some EPA veterans who describe an agency beset by low morale, weak enforcement, and political meddling in science. And they warn that turning it around will take much more than changing a few people at the top.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.
President-elect Barack Obama is wasting no time assembling his cabinet, but still to be named is his choice to head up the Environmental Protection Agency.
Under the Bush presidency, the EPA has been a constant source of controversy. Allegations of lax enforcement, and manipulation of scientific studies sparked fights in Congress and lawsuits before the nation’s highest court. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has a look at what’s happened to the agency and the job that lies ahead for the next EPA chief.
YOUNG: You didn’t have to follow the news to know the Environmental Protection Agency had an image problem—all you had to do was watch the Simpson’s movie. The villain was the head of the EPA.
SIMPSONS EXCERPT: Cargill: I’ve narrowed your choices down to five options. President: “I need to know what I’m approving” Cargill: “knowing things is overrated!”
YOUNG: How did one of the world’s premiere environmental agencies become the punch line to a pop culture joke? Many who worked in EPA say eight years of the Bush Administration left an agency with a disregard for science, a discouraged workforce, and decreased enforcement of laws meant to protect the air, water and public health. And both those who criticize the agency and defend it agree it will not be easy for President Obama’s new leaders to change things.
SCHAEFFER: Well, the Bush administration’s been around for eight years and their agenda was pretty radical, and it does mean the Obama administration will have some work turning the ship around. It’s not simply a matter of replacing a few people at the top.
YOUNG: That’s Eric Schaeffer, who joined EPA under the first President Bush. As head of Civil Enforcement, Schaeffer led efforts to clean up refineries and power plants. But early in 2001 he realized this President Bush was taking the agency in a different direction.
SCHAEFFER: You got this kind of sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that facts were not going to matter. And that science wasn’t really going to have much place in the discussion, this was very political.
YOUNG: Schaeffer quit and started a private watchdog group called Environmental Integrity Project, hounding the Agency on things like changes to the clean air act, a weak mercury emissions rule, and inaction on global warming. Courts eventually threw out most of the Bush EPA proposals. But Schaeffer says even when the Bush EPA lost, it won.
SCHAEFFER: These battles are mostly about buying time. For a lot of these guys, they’re smart enough to know they’re gonna lose. But they benefit from the game. The game is, put a bad rule forward and even if it loses, it will buy us five, six, seven years until we have to comply with the standard. That is a victory.
YOUNG: That’s the sort of thing the Obama transition team is now hearing about. The team is led by Carol Browner, who led the EPA for much of the 90s under President Clinton.
BROWNER: I think that the last eight years was not just about inattention it wasn’t
like they were just sort of not doing anything, they were actively looking at how to change the decision-making paradigm to move it away from historic "protect the public health, protect the public welfare," whatever statutes that EPA has responsibility for, they managed to change the fundamentals of every single one of them.
YOUNG: Browner has high praise for EPA workers. But there are signs of trouble there, too. A survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists found nearly 900 EPA scientists around the country said they had felt political interference in their work.
Jeff Ruch runs a group called PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which he calls a giant shelter for battered government workers. Ruch heard a lot from EPA’s workers. Some were upset that the agency closed some of its world-class research libraries.
RUCH: At one point I got a call from an anguished librarian on a cell phone and he’d been ordered to recycle volumes and he was saving them in the cafeteria, and wanted to know what his rights were.
YOUNG: Ruch says morale got so low that unions representing thousands of EPA workers sent an unprecedented letter to Administrator Stephen Johnson accusing him of violating their trust. The letter cited the agency head’s decision to ignore staff advice on the question of regulating greenhouse gases.
RUCH: What I hear from employees, is they’re ashamed to tell their neighbors and friends where they work because they’re asked what they’re doing about global warming and they have to admit they’re doing nothing. They’re facing in their minds the biggest environmental crisis of their lifetimes and they’re not allowed to work on it. And to them it’s quite distressing.
YOUNG: Ruch says low morale worsens workforce losses already underway because many EPA workers are reaching retirement age. It’s something EPA engineer Hugh Kaufman sees firsthand. Kaufman joined EPA at its creation and calls the Bush years an attempt to destroy the agency.
KAUFMAN: The preponderance of people brought in to the agency over the last eight years were basically a very sophisticated wrecking crew. And so the old timers have taken early retirement or left, and basically EPA has been hollowed out. So the agency is going to have to be rebuilt.
YOUNG: EPA Administrator Johnson was not available for comment for this story. One of his former deputies defended the Bush EPA. Jeff Holmstead led EPA’s air office under Bush for five years. He was responsible for many of the decisions that critics say favored industry over the environment.
HOLMSTEAD: I guess I have to say I kind of resent the premise of your question that somehow if something is good for industry it has to be bad for the environment. That’s just not true.
YOUNG: Holmstead says the Bush EPA pushed for two of the biggest public health victories in the agency’s history: a clean air rule to limit power plant emissions and a cleanup of off-road diesel engines. And Holmstead has a warning for the new EPA team if it wants to get rid of rules and procedures he helped put in place.
HOLMSTEAD: It’s not nearly as easy as you think. The regulatory apparatus is cumbersome. And it’s unrealistic to think anyone can come in and just immediately change things around, that’s not the way the system is designed to work.
YOUNG: EPA veterans Eric Schaeffer and Hugh Kaufman say that’s why Obama should appoint someone strong and savvy who can shake things up. But the man who campaigned on a message of change may find EPA a tough place to make change happen.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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