Twenty Minutes with Carol Browner

Article excerpt

The drab white linoleum hallways of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters hardly prepare you for the penthouse suite of offices that is administrator Carol Browner's world. The walls have imitation Audubon bird prints, the picture windows overlook the grassy banks along the Potomac River, and a small crew of secretaries sound like air traffic controllers trying to land appointments far down Browner's schedule. As I'm ushered into her office, which seems like a living room with its white couch and elegant wooden bookcases, a photographer adjusts his white light umbrella and Browner greets me warmly. She began the day at a White House ceremony, where President Clinton unveiled his Northwest Forest Plan, and after our visit she must huddle with her aides about a crisis over the North American Free Trade Agreement. But for 20 minutes, her time is ours. She looks radiant in a short dusky blue dress and big golden earrings that shine under her short brunette haircut. Unlike press photos in which she seems tight-lipped and stiff-shouldered, she's very animated in person - smiling, waving her hands, checking the tape recorder, tackling questions before I finish asking them.

At times Browner sounds like a supercharged bureaucrat, getting excited, for example, over "moving 80 significant rule packages" by the end of the year. But she catches herself dipping into EPA-speak and says with a smile: "Not that people care about this!" She is a hyper-bright lawyer, but also a populist at heart, known for taking a moment after meetings to establish a personal rapport with people. She's friendly with EPA employees in the elevator, rides the subway to work, and last Earth Day donned a "One Less Car" T-shirt to bicycle commute from her home in Maryland, where she lives with her husband, Michael Podhorzer, who works for the advocacy group Citizen Action, and their five-year-old son, Zachary.

At age 37, Browner has been a government wunderkind, serving as Senator Al Gore's legislative director and as head of the Florida state environmental agency. (She grew up near Miami, where her parents both teach at Miami-Dade Community College.) She inherits an agency with over 17,700 employees, a $6.9 billion budget, and a troubled history. "The U.S. has the most comprehensive set of environmental laws in the world," noted a critical report by the Center for Resource Economics, yet the EPA "cannot ensure that American communities and industries are in full compliance with a single federal environmental law."

But Browner doesn't wallow in difficulties. She often tells a story about a cab ride with Zachary. The driver asked him what his mom did, and he replied, "She saves things." "Saves things? What kind of things?" asked the cabbie. "Oh, she saves air...water...trees - and bananas." Zachary may be thinking about his favorite food, but Browner must think about his future. Environmental protection, she has said, is really child protection: "Their little bodies have to live with our decisions. They will inherit the world we pass on."

E: Many environmentalists were closet fans of your predecessor, William Reilly. One even said that he raised the agency to a level of genuine mediocrity, a compliment after the worst of the Reagan years. How do you assess the EPA?

Browner: William Reilly did a very good job in a very difficult situation. He was dealing with a White House that didn't care about the issues. He cared. The people here cared. But they were up against a vice president and a Competitiveness Council that wasn't interested in making tough decisions and striking a balance. This administration believes the economy and the environment are intertwined. It is not a choice between one or the other. A healthy economy needs a healthy environment, and vice versa.

The EPA is a great place. People care very much about their work. We've already done some good things. We've added about 200 chemicals to the list that companies must report to the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory, which is among our most potent environmental weapons. …