Extreme makeover at the EPA

With another round of industry-friendly appointments to the agency, the Bush administration continues to weaken the nation's environmental protections.


Amanda Griscom Little
August 2, 2005 12:00PM (UTC)

While the green community and the press fixate on the energy bill that's finally wending its way to President Bush's desk, a changing of the guard underway at the Environmental Protection Agency is sliding by virtually unnoticed.

When Stephen Johnson assumed his post at the head of the agency in May, he vacated the No. 2 spot of deputy administrator, which the White House has finally gotten around to filling. Bush has also nominated a new candidate for chief of law enforcement at the EPA, a post that he has had trouble keeping filled since taking office. And, last, plans are in the works to appoint a new assistant administrator in charge of the agency's Office of Air and Radiation, a position about to be vacated by Jeffrey Holmstead. Infamous among enviros for spearheading efforts to weaken new-source review and make mercury regulations more business-friendly, Holmstead announced his impending resignation (PDF) on July 20, telling EPA staff in a letter (PDF) that he plans to travel the world with his family.

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On July 28, the Senate confirmed Marcus Peacock to be second in command at the EPA. Nominated by Bush in early June, Peacock has served for the past few years as a number cruncher in the White House Office of Management and Budget, overseeing the environmental, energy and science programs. He has spent his career inside the Beltway -- he was hired into OMB during the Reagan era, and intermittently had stints as a committee staffer in the House of Representatives and as a policy analyst in the private sector. In his recent capacity at OMB, he was responsible for determining whether the cost of environmental regulations is justified by their benefit to the U.S. economy.

Gary Bass, executive director of the nonprofit OMB Watch in Washington, calls Peacock a conservative ideologue "with a decidedly anti-environmental regulatory track record." Recall the first days of the Bush administration, when the White House froze more than a dozen Clinton-era rules related to the environment, health and safety, including ones on arsenic in drinking water, snowmobiles in national parks and protections for roadless areas of national forests. Peacock was instrumental in the decision to put a hold on rule making in these areas, according to Bass. And remember the steady succession of budget cuts the White House requested for the EPA? There again, Peacock played a key role, Bass says.

The going theory in green circles is that Peacock was chosen to act as an ideological counterweight to Johnson, a politically neutral and highly regarded scientist who got overwhelming bipartisan support in his Senate confirmation. "There is some concern that Peacock is going to be the ball attached by chains to Johnson's ankles," said John Walke, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Judging from Peacock's comments in a written series of questions and answers (PDF) with senators (a routine part of the confirmation process), enviros may have reason to be concerned. When asked by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., whether White House doctoring of scientific reports -- such as that done by White House lawyer Philip Cooney on climate change studies -- was appropriate, Peacock answered yes: "As someone with expertise on issues relating to climate change and the environment, I believe [Cooney's] participation in the review was appropriate." And in a response to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., he applauded the White House's (non-) approach to global warming: "The Bush administration supports sound science and has made a strong commitment to climate-change science," he wrote.

None of this seems to concern the EPA chief, who released a glowing statement following Peacock's nomination: "Marcus's extensive environmental background and his capable leadership will reinforce the agency's commitments to the sound science that provides the American people with lasting results," said Johnson.

Equally objectionable to enviros is Bill Wehrum, who was tapped on July 26 to temporarily assume Holmstead's position once he leaves, and who some expect to be nominated to take it over permanently in the fall. If that happens, enviros predict green-leaning senators will kick up a fuss. Said Walke, "It's common knowledge that Holmstead's agenda has been pro-industry and controversial, but for those in the know, Wehrum is Holmstead on steroids."

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Like Holmstead, Wehrum was formerly a lobbyist for Latham & Watkins, a law firm that represents business interests, where he went to bat for the timber industry. "I have known Bill for years and have always admired his knowledge of the Clean Air Act," Holmstead wrote in a letter sent on July 26 to EPA staffers. "Bill's skills and talents have been instrumental in many of our successes over the last four years."

Instrumental indeed, says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch: "Wehrum has been Holmstead's Rasputin -- the behind-the-scenes architect of all the most controversial initiatives that Holmstead took credit for." Wehrum was a lead author of the doomed "Clear Skies" legislation, O'Donnell says, and played key roles in making changes to new-source review and designing the rules governing the administration's market-based trading program for mercury emissions, which are now being challenged in federal court. "You mention his name to career staffers at EPA and they groan as if they have an abdominal problem," said O'Donnell.

Less nauseating but still unsettling to enviros is the nomination of Granta Nakayama, a lawyer who has long represented industry interests, to replace Thomas Skinner as head of the EPA's enforcement division. Skinner tendered his resignation in May after spending only a year in the position. His predecessors, Sylvia Lowrance and J.P. Suarez, both opened up to the press after leaving the post about the enormous difficulties of working in the EPA enforcement program under Bush.

"It's a crap job right now," said Eric Schaeffer, who served in the enforcement office until 2002, when he quit in protest over failure to enforce the Clean Air Act. "You have the White House boxing you in all the time; you have program officers trying to block your cases. Basically, if you do your job right in this climate, you'll anger a lot of your superiors. Enforcement is not the place to be right now if you are going to advance your political career."

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Nakayama -- an attorney in the D.C. office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he has lobbied for the snowmobile industry and engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton -- likely understands that. In fact, he is rumored to have been offered the job once before, in 2002, but turned it down. "We don't know much about Nakayama, or whether there were any deals cut to convince him to come aboard," said Schaeffer. "I'm not saying he won't get in and do a great job. But he's a young guy with a political career ahead of him, so it's possible that he was promised an exit strategy."

Though few doubt that Nakayama will be confirmed by the Senate, it's not guaranteed. Earlier this week, an anonymous senator placed a hold on his confirmation, presumably in an effort to get more information on his background or on enforcement concerns at large. As for Wehrum, Walke predicts that if the Bush administration tried to permanently install him as chief of the air division, his confirmation would be blocked. "When I talked to Senate staffers about [Wehrum's] appointment to EPA, there was more than a little skepticism," he said.


Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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