The EPA's revolving door

Yet another high-level leader at the Environmental Protection Agency has decided to throw in the towel. Is a heavy-handed Bush White House to blame?

Published May 1, 2004 12:33AM (EDT)

The language is increasingly familiar:

"I'm leaving at this time in order to spend more quality time with my family ... I realize that I need to devote more time and energy to being [a] wife and mom."

Yep, another beleaguered Bush appointee at the U.S. EPA bites the dust. Christine Todd Whitman flew the coop last spring, and this week one of her right-hand women -- Marianne Lamont Horinko, the assistant EPA administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response -- announced that she will follow suit on June 1.

Horinko served as the agency's acting administrator for four months after Whitman's departure from the top EPA spot and before Mike Leavitt's appointment as her replacement. During Horinko's tenure, she quietly -- and by all accounts deferentially -- took a beating in what is known to be one of the most thankless jobs inside the Beltway. In an e-mail announcing her resignation to EPA staff, she wrote of the "strength and courage" needed to withstand the "slings and arrows" that came along with the job.

"You know the Plum Book, which lists all the most sought-after jobs in Washington? This job is listed in the Prune Book. It's not glamorous," said Marjorie Buckholtz, Horinko's communications director. Buckholtz told Muckraker that she worked with Horinko "every day and many evenings late into the night. It's a punishing schedule, even just in the waste program. Her four months as acting administrator were exciting, challenging, fabulous -- but completely off the charts in terms of the demands that were made on her. So it was time to get back to her family."

With two young kids, ages 5 and 6, it makes sense that Horinko would want to opt out of the grueling hours and busy travel schedule of an assistant EPA administrator -- not to mention the need to be on call 24/7 for emergency management.

Critics say, though, that while the "time with family" line may be heartfelt and justified, it could also be interpreted as code for, "I just can't take it anymore."

"Frankly, it's hard to believe that she lasted this long," said Barbara Elkus, a senior policy advisor at the League of Conservation Voters and a former EPA employee who worked with Horinko. "I think at one point in her career she had good environmental inklings, so I was surprised to see that she put up with so much. She did everything they told her to. Many people assumed it was because she hoped for something in exchange -- like Whitman's job. So it was another surprise that she stayed on when she didn't get it."

Kevin Curtis, vice president of National Environmental Trust, also said that Horinko "demonstrated a high threshold for tolerance -- she gave the authority to pass the new-source review rule, and gave up a big piece of EPA's regulatory authority over Pentagon-caused pollution, among other highly controversial moves during her tenure. So if even she's getting fed up, it means things had gotten pretty unbearable."

A former EPA employee who worked with Horinko and asked to remain anonymous told Muckraker: "Her superiors in the White House chose to do a bunch of crappy stuff during her tenure [as acting EPA chief], and while she may have objected now and again behind the scenes, she went along like a good soldier. My sense is that ultimately it wore her down. When you're in a big-league job in Washington, you either have to do what you're asked to or resign."

Rifle through the news from Horinko's four months as acting EPA administrator and you'll find a long list of controversies. Nothing, of course, tops her ushering through much-maligned changes to the Clean Air Act's new-source review (NSR) provisions: "She could have said no," said Eric Schaeffer, a former high-level enforcement official at the EPA who quit two years ago to protest enforcement lapses. "She was clearly part of the deregulatory agenda. She was, I think, there in that transition period to make some of the hard decisions that maybe Whitman wasn't willing to."

Buckholtz rebuffed criticism of Horinko on NSR and said she worked hard to do right in the arena. "She was not as familiar with the air issues. She had to learn the issues on the job. She was constantly reading," Buckholtz said.

Horinko's lack of knowledge in this area actually may have been appealing to her superiors and colleagues at the EPA, such as Jeffrey Holmstead, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, who is presumed to have had an industry-friendly agenda for NSR.

Horinko had a strong reputation for knowing her stuff in the waste field, though. "She's very smart -- I always had great respect for her knowledge of the solid-waste regulatory system," said Schaeffer, who worked with her for years when the two were colleagues at the D.C. law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Of course, that doesn't mean enviros were happy with what Horinko did in the waste area. During her tenure, a proposal was crafted that would redefine hazardous waste and limit the materials that could be regulated under hazardous-waste law. Activists also criticize her on Superfund.

"This is the first time that we've had a president and a solid-waste director who were not supportive of reinstating the Superfund tax," said Elkus. "Marianne just spouted the party line -- saying the tax unfairly penalized the good guys along with bad guys. She just seemed to watch from the sidelines without objection as taxpayers increasingly footed the bill for Superfund cleanup, and as the listings of new [Superfund] sites dwindled."

It was also Horinko who, as head of EPA's emergency efforts, led the agency's response to the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center -- and who awkwardly deflected (and never managed to fully refute) accusations that the EPA failed to release critical data about potentially dangerous air quality at ground zero.

But according to the D.C. rumor mill, the straw that finally broke Horinko's back came just last week when she testified before a House Energy and Commerce Air Quality Subcommittee hearing in support of the Pentagon's assertion that it needs to be exempted from environmental regulations, which it says are hamstringing combat preparations. In this, she contradicted testimony made a year ago by Whitman, who said she knew of no examples in which environmental laws had impeded the military's readiness.

Some observers believe Horinko was put in an awkward position, forced to support Pentagon claims for which her own agency has found no evidence. "Her performance was uncharacteristically abysmal," said one environmentalist who attended the hearings and spoke on condition of anonymity. "She is usually very well spoken, but this time she was visibly flustered and stepping on her words. She looked like she was getting an enema."

Sylvia Lowrance thought Horinko's testimony seemed like a final favor for the Bush administration. "These DOD exemptions are outrageous," said Lowrance, a high-level EPA employee for more than 20 years who retired in July 2002 and has since voiced serious misgivings about the way the agency is being run. "It's one of the grossest examples of abuse of power I've seen in this administration. I think Horinko had made up her mind to leave well before she made this testimony, but it was certainly a nice little departure note to end on."

Enviros think Horinko has a whole host of reasons to be uncomfortable with the role she was asked to play at Bush's EPA, but if she has any complaints, she isn't voicing them. Like Whitman, she remains a loyal soldier, if one who's decided that discretion is the better part of valor.

Or maybe she just misses her kids.

Almighty God, your word of creation caused the water to be filled with many kinds of living beings and the air to be filled with birds ... Thank you for seeds and soil, green stem and air. For fruit on the vine, then falling fruit rotting on the moist ground, then new seed again ... We pray for your wisdom for all who live on this earth that we may wisely manage and not destroy what you have made for us.

So spake a reverend at Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., last weekend at an Earth Day Sunday service attended by Muckraker -- one of tens of thousands of similar services that took place nationwide as part of a growing effort in America's church community to stimulate environmental activism.

Even enviros of a decidedly secular bent who might normally blanch at such creationist sentiments will appreciate the call for wise management of natural resources. Indeed, when they discover that in the past week Christian leaders have delivered this plea not just to millions in their congregations, but also to our very own God-fearing commander in chief, they may cry "hallelujah!"

On Earth Day last week, more than 100 reverends, ministers and bishops representing more than 2 million American churchgoers sent a letter to the White House condemning President Bush's environmental record. There were no rabbis or imams among the signatories, but not because the National Council of Churches, which organized the letter signing, doesn't value interfaith efforts. Rather, according to Cassandra Carmichael, director of eco-justice programs at the NCC, "This was a Christian-to-Christian letter. We have a president who aligns himself with the Christian community, but as Christians we feel he needs to take a good hard look at the Bible and begin abiding by its principles."

"The book of Genesis records that God beholds creation as 'very good' (Genesis 3:1) and commands us to 'till and tend the garden' (Genesis 2:15)," reads the letter. "[W]e believe that the administration's energy, clean-air, and climate-change programs prolong our dependence on fossil fuels, which are depleting Earth's resources, poisoning its climate, punishing the poor, constricting sustainable economic growth, and jeopardizing global security and peace."

The missive takes aim in particular at the Bush administration's politics on air pollution. "[W]e feel called to express grave moral concern about your 'Clear Skies' initiative -- which we believe is [part of] the administration's continuous effort to weaken critical environmental standards that protect God's creation," says the letter, which goes on to criticize Bush's efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act's new-source review provisions and his failure to institute mandatory controls for greenhouse-gas emissions.

Citing the Bible's directive to "defend the poor and the orphan; do justice to the afflicted and the needy (Psalms 82:3)," the letter sings the gospel of environmental justice, noting that clean-air policy changes have the greatest impact on "those least able to defend themselves" -- namely, "[p]oor people, who have limited access to health care; senior citizens, who may have compromised immune systems; and children, who pound for pound breathe 50 percent more air pollution than adults."

What's notable about the effort is not just its attention to policy detail, but its direct assault on what Bush's supporters (and Bush himself) frequently cite as his core strength: an unswerving moral rectitude derived from Christian faith.

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar put it this way: "President Bush has said that moral values are the cornerstone of his administration. But as a person of faith, I question whether the president fully understands his moral commitment. I'm concerned that he is failing to protect God's children."

Edgar, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1987, was the first Democrat in over a century elected from the heavily Republican seventh district of Pennsylvania. "I was elected largely by fiscally conservative Republican men that were supportive of the environment," he told Muckraker, adding that these same pro-environment Republicans are "horrified when they see what the Bush administration is doing to environmental protections."

While Muckraker sat among the families gathered in their Earth Day Sunday best at Cumberland Presbyterian -- as parents and grandparents beamed at dozens of children scurrying through the aisles with azalea blossoms in hand -- two words came to mind (besides "amen" and "hallelujah"): swing voters.

There was no overt Bush-bashing during the service, but it wasn't hard to connect the dots between a divine mandate for good environmental stewardship and growing evidence that the Bush administration has fallen from grace.

Consider this: The National Council of Churches has 36 member denominations in more than 100,000 congregations nationwide -- that adds up to a whopping 45 million faithful. This collaboration of mainline Protestant churches isn't part of the religious right, which Bush has worked so hard to court, but it might be called the religious middle -- a constituency the president would like to have in his camp this election season. If so, he's got some convincing to do.

"Our community holds the president, as a Christian, to the kind of moral standards that we live by," Carmichael said. "But more and more members are seeing a disconnect [between their beliefs and the president's policies]; they're becoming alarmed and raising their voices. They're coming to terms with the fact that they can't in good faith ignore what this administration is doing to God's earth."

The letter puts it this way: "We do not come to these positions casually, nor are we alone in our views. A growing number of religious Americans have come to recognize a solemn obligation to measure environmental policies against biblically mandated standards for stewardship and justice."

If the political force of Christian environmentalism continues to spread in areas once thought solid Bush demographics, his campaign may be doing some praying of its own come November -- their own Judgment Day.

By Amanda Griscom

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