EPA Insider Nominated to Lead Agency

Times Staff Writers

President Bush reached into the ranks of the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday and nominated its acting administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, to head the office where he has worked for 24 years.

Johnson, 53, a biologist and pathologist, would be the first scientist and first career EPA employee to head the agency, which was established in 1970 as the environmental movement took hold across the U.S.

Johnson must be confirmed by the Senate and his selection drew initial support from some senators with strong environmental records, as well as others who closely follow such issues.


But skeptics questioned whether Johnson would stand up to White House officials, who critics say favor industries’ needs over protection of the nation’s air, water and land.

With Johnson at his side in the White House Roosevelt Room, Bush said, “He knows the EPA from the ground up, and has a passion for its mission -- to protect the health of our citizens, and to guarantee the quality of our air, water and land for generations to come.”

“He is an impressive pick,” said Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

“Steve is a straight-shooter who has a reputation for being fair, paying close attention to the science and calling things as he sees them.”

Cook said such characteristics had “not been a hallmark of this administration” in its environmental policy.

A less positive assessment of Johnson came from a former senior EPA official who worked with him throughout the eight years of the Clinton administration.

“He’s not going to push back,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he continued to have dealings with the agency. “He’s not ideological. He has no agenda of his own. They chose him to lower the profile of the agency.”

The former official noted that several high-ranking EPA administrators have ties to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and to Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have sought to relax the government’s regulatory grip.

He predicted that the direction the agency took would depend largely on whether Johnson or these other EPA administrators gained the upper hand.

Johnson would replace Michael Leavitt, the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Leavitt, former governor of Utah, served in the EPA post for little more than a year. He succeeded Bush’s first pick for the job, Christie Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, who resigned.

Johnson’s selection drew none of the sharp opposition that would have greeted a nominee with direct ties to the industries most closely monitored by the agency.

He is “more of a technocrat than an ideologue,” said Eric Schaefer, an administration critic who once directed the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement.

“I think he will be cautious and loyal at the same time,” said Schaefer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, which seeks strong enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws.

The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), noted that the Senate had already confirmed Johnson twice for lower ranking jobs.

Sen. Jim M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), a committee member and frequent critic of Bush on environmental matters, said Johnson’s “experience and temperament make him a solid choice to lead the agency at this time.”

Jeffords added: “The Bush administration has the worst environmental record in history, and I am hopeful that given Steve’s background and experience, he can bring a fresh and new approach to the administration.”

The agency has 18,000 employees and a budget of $8 billion.

Bush proposed cutting its funding by about a half-billion dollars in his budget request for the 2006 fiscal year.

He has asked Congress to reduce the $2.9-billion clean water budget by $500 million, and to make other sharp cuts in a program providing low-interest loans to states for programs that protect water quality, while increasing spending elsewhere.

Bush termed Johnson “a talented scientist and skilled manager with a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship.”

Citing the agency’s role in protecting resources from sabotage, Bush said that Johnson would “lead federal efforts to ensure the security of our drinking water supply.”

The president’s remarks touched on issues that have become central in the debate over environmental laws -- the degree to which the economy is hampered by such regulations and the degree to which the rules are based on scientific findings.

The president said Johnson would use his background “to set clear, rational standards for environmental quality, and to place sound scientific analysis at the heart of all major decisions.”

He said Johnson “shares my conviction that we can improve the Earth while maintaining a vibrant and competitive economy.”

Top environmental matters facing the administration include winning support for revisions in clean air legislation, tied up for two years in the Senate environment committee, and completing work on new regulations on the release of mercury into the air.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an association of power-generating companies with a keen interest in those issues, praised Johnson as “a capable leader.”

But Rena Steinzor, a member of the board of the Center for Progressive Regulation and a professor of environmental law at the University of Maryland, said Johnson’s selection was “not good news.”

“He’s a career employee who has been considered a close ally of the major industry he is charged with regulating,” Steinzor said.

She said a recent lawsuit filed by environmental groups alleged “that on his watch, the pesticide division staff [of the EPA] met 50 times behind closed doors with the major manufacturer of a pesticide believed to cause gene mutations. This nomination ... brings to a new level control of the EPA by the industry it regulates.”

But Cook of the Environmental Working Group recalled meetings at which Johnson firmly told angry farmers and ranchers that scientific studies submitted by environmental groups were valid.

Praising some, but not all, of Johnson’s decisions regarding pesticide regulations, he said Johnson had made tough, fair calls.

He added, “The big question for us is whether he will get to make the real decisions or will he be, like Christie Whitman, someone who heads the agency while the big decisions are made in the White House, where industry has so much influence.”

The selection nearly completes Bush’s post-election shuffling of Cabinet-level and other senior positions.

Vacancies remaining include that of U.S. trade representative, ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.