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Trading Science for Politics

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/johnson1.jpgEnvironmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson (WDCpix)

The Environmental Protection Agency, on its Web site, describes air quality on the U.S.-Mexico border as “abysmal” and getting worse, due to rapid industrialization. Yet when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced plans last week to complete the border fence by waiving environmental laws, the EPA administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, was silent. The EPA is supposed to address air quality programs under the Clean Air Act, but agency spokesman Jonathan Shrader said he wasn’t aware of anyone from homeland security even bothering to check with the environmental agency.

Allowing air quality control to lapse at the border is only the most recent example of the EPA undermining the work of its own scientists. Johnson’s biggest decisions, on issues like greenhouse gas emissions and ozone standards, appear dictated not by his scientific staff but by the political directives of President George W. Bush.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Congress, state legislatures and environmental groups have been excoriating Johnson for not providing a voice to the EPA’s scientific findings. Wednesday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued Johnson a third subpoena, demanding to know the White House’s influence over his decision not to let California regulate greenhouse gas emissions in automobiles.

The oversight committee is also investigating whether Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters improperly pressured Johnson about the California emissions ruling and why Susan E. Dudley, the director of information and regulatory affairs at the Office of Management Budget, put the brakes on the EPA’s new ozone standard. Hardly a week goes by without the oversight committee blasting a ruling or regulation made by Johnson, state attorneys general taking Johnson to court and environmental groups calling for his resignation.

Yet Johnson is not a political appointee lacking in scientific knowledge. Rather, he served as an EPA health scientist, specializing in pesticides, for 27 years. Johnson’s background, however, can almost be said to be one of his weaknesses. Instead of giving a voice to EPA scientists, he has demonstrated that he lacks the political power and experience necessary to stand up to top Bush administration officials.

“There was hope that a career official with scientific credentials would be willing to do more than carry out the White House’s wishes,” said John Walke, director of the National Resources Defense Council and a former EPA clean air attorney. “But he’s just an accomplice.”

When Bush appointed Johnson to head the agency, in 2005, top EPA scientists had been excited that one of their own was now in control. They thought he would speak up for scientists, and his knowledge would help increase his authority within in the administration. “When he was appointed, I was in seventh heaven,” said John W. Hirzy, executive vice-president of National Treasury Employees Union, Chapter 280, which represents EPA scientists . “Johnson had said ‘The science is what the science is.’ We believed that he believed it.”

But now many of these same scientists are calling on Johnson to step down. Last month, union scientists broke their longstanding labor-management partnership, saying Johnson had compromised the scientific integrity of the agency. The union specifically cited that Johnson had overruled their unanimous recommendation to let California control its own regulation of automobile emissions.

Hirzy said that while Johnson may not be the most powerful Bush administration official, he still makes the final call on all EPA decisions. “This is on Stephen Johnson,” Hirzy said. “He can always say, ‘Find somebody else to sign off on this order.’”

The border fence issue demonstrates how the EPA science staff work is divorced from administrative policy.

The EPA’s Texas and California regional offices collaborated with the Mexican government in 2002 to create a Border 2012 program to address the growing pollution problem. “The 14 metropolitan areas along the border have abysmal air and water quality,” the Border 2012 Web site states. It goes on to say that rapid population growth has led to “poorly planned development.” “amplified traffic congestion,” and “frequent chemical emergencies.”

But the agency has been silent during the two-year contentious public debate of whether to build the 700-mile fence. Despite border community’s concern about deteriorating environmental standards, the EPA’s national headquarters did not issue a response to either Chertoff’s announcement or Congress’s 2006 decision to let DHS build on the border.

Dave Barry, the EPA’s spokesman in its Texas headquarters, said it was up to the national office to work with DHS. Shrader said he was unaware of Border 2012, but added he had only been at the EPA since December.

“How and why the EPA reconciles such actions is above my pay grade,” Hirzy said. “It’s probably through the same legal, mental and moral gyrations that justify not granting California the tail-pipe waiver.”

Indeed, the issue that will likely define Johnson’s EPA was his decision in December not to grant California a wavier, allowing the state to regulate carbon emissions from automobile tailpipes that contribute to global warming. In making his decision, Johnson overruled a report from EPA staff that the regulation made sense and that California would sue if denied the waiver. Indeed, California and 16 other states sued in January.

The EPA’s legal problems were compounded last week, when California and 17 other states filed a different lawsuit. This time, the states wanted to know why the agency hasn’t released its staff finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. The Supreme Court ruled last April that if such emissions lead to global warming, the agency must regulate them under the Clean Air Act.

“Johnson lacks the independent political stature to make sound global warming decisions,” Walke said. “So he offers incoherent explanations that poorly mask the political pressure he’s under.”

What drove Johnson to overrule his staff on the California waiver has prompted two prominent congressional investigations — one by Sen. Barbara L. Boxer (D-Calif.), who chair’s the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee, and one by Waxman’s oversight committee.

The committee’s third subpoena to Johnson specifically requests that EPA provide unedited copies of about 100 documents involving Johnson’s conversations with the White House. “The committee has found evidence that EPA officials met with the White House regarding California’s motor vehicle regulations,” Waxman said in a statement. “Unfortunately, EPA has refused to disclose the substance and extent of its communications.”

In denying the waiver, the EPA is not just suspected of following orders from the White House. It also appears subservient to other federal agencies. The oversight committee is investigating whether Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters met with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and called members of Congress in a campaign to stop Johnson from granting California’s waiver request.

Johnson’s go-along approach with other administration officials was even more explicit in developing new ozone standards. In mid-March, EPA staff recommended to Johnson that the amount of ozone particles allowable in the atmosphere should change from 84 parts-per-billion to no higher than 65 parts-per-billion. Johnson decided that would be too difficult enforce, but then agreed to tighten the standard on the particles, which cause smog, to 70 parts-per-billion.

But Susan E. Dudley, administrator of the office of information and regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, intervened and urged Johnson to write an even less strict 75 parts-per-billion standard. Johnson agreed. “That was an incredible instance where OMB made a decision and ordered the EPA to carry it out under public light,” Walke, of NRDC, said.

Environmental scientists said that being publicly undermined was what led to the resignation of the Bush administration’s first EPA administrator, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

“Whitman was just not ready to go to the mat for the Bush administration every time,” said Eric V. Schaeffer, head of the EPA’s office of regulatory enforcement under Whitman and now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “At the end of the day she couldn’t tolerate the abuses of this administration and she left.”

Johnson, though, remains at EPA despite being seen as carrying the water not just of Bush but of Chertoff, and other Cabinet officials. Despite scrutiny from Congress, states and environmental groups, the career bureaucrat has still not developed a strong public voice. “Bush appointed somebody from the civil service and that’s a pretty big promotion,” Schaeffer said. “He’s been star struck.”

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