Bush's EPA Pick Comes with Outsider Insight ; Stephen Johnson Is Praised by Environmentalists but Must Serve an Administration with Focused on Economic Growth

Article excerpt

Stephen Johnson may be an expert on toxic substances and hazardous wastes. But as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, this trained scientist can only hope that his 24 years as an EPA professional will have prepared him for the murky, gritty world of Washington politics.

Over its 35-year history, the agency has become one of the tallest lightning rods in federal government. Environmentalists see it as their best official friend - when they're not suing it, that is. Some industrialists, builders, and farmers deride it as one of the greatest impediments to economic development and the free market. EPA bureaucrats - especially those who write the regulations meant to define and enforce such fundamental US environmental laws as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts - have been likened to the Gestapo. The current chair of the Senate environment committee has said the agency should be done away with.

Into this political thicket comes Mr. Johnson, the first EPA administrator to rise from the ranks of agency professionals. He's a political appointee requiring Senate confirmation; but he's neither a politician (Michael Leavitt and Christine Todd Whitman, his two immediate predecessors in the Bush administration, had been governors) nor a state agency official seen as an activist (like Carol Browner, Bill Clinton's EPA chief).

The list of nasty stuff he's in charge of limiting in the nation's air, water, and soil is lengthy: soot, smog, and mercury in the atmosphere; toxic residue from industrial plants, mining, power production, and factory farms - some of it so vast that particularly poisonous areas have been designated Superfund sites; greenhouse gases suspected of changing Earth's climate; neurotoxins, carcinogens, and other poisons that are especially scary in an age of international terrorism.

Meanwhile, President Bush's "Clear Skies" legislation meant to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury - his top environmental priority - is hung up in the US Senate. Two Republican governors, George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, are concerned that it doesn't go far enough, and 10 state attorneys general are publicly opposing it.

On a personal level, Johnson starts with a reputation that seems universally good.

Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, whose members include major power plants, calls the EPA nominee "a capable leader ... a respected, seasoned professional."

Ken Cook of the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group says Johnson is "a spectacularly good appointment . …