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
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 . …