The head of regulatory enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency has stepped down, MSNBC.com has learned, claiming in a resignation letter that the EPA is fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce. An EPA spokesman denied the allegations, saying the Bush administration was committed to enforcing the nations environmental laws.
IN HIS RESIGNATION letter, Eric Schaeffer complained specifically about what he saw as attempts to weaken Clean Air Act regulations on coal-fired power plants.
“It is hard to know which is worse,” he wrote of a review of a key Clean Air Act provision, “the endless delay or the repeated leaks by energy industry lobbyists of draft rule changes that would undermine lawsuits already filed” against power plants.
Those lawsuits were filed during the Clinton administration, but a review ordered at the start of the Bush administration has left the status of such actions unclear.
“At their heart, these proposals would turn narrow exemptions into larger loopholes that would allow old ‘grandfathered’ plants to be continually rebuilt (and emissions to increase) without modern pollution controls,” Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer told MSNBC.com that he started at the EPA 12 years ago, hired by the first Bush administration. Then EPA chief Bill Reilly was “great on enforcement,” he said, and that administration actually closed loopholes in the Clean Air Act.
“It’s very ironic,” he said, that President Bush should be seen as weakening an environmental law tightened by his father. “His dad should talk to him.”
Schaeffer, who resigned as director of the Office of Regulatory Enforcement Wednesday night, said he wouldn’t be surprised if other EPA officials eventually follow him. “There’s a lot of frustration in enforcement,” he said.
Text of EPA official's resignation letter
BUDGET CUTS CITED
Schaeffer also wrote that “our negotiating position is weakened further by the administration’s budget proposal to cut the civil enforcement program by more than 200 staff positions below the 2001 level. Already, we are unable to fill key staff positions, not only in air enforcement, but in other critical programs, and the proposed budget cuts would leave us desperately short of the resources needed to deal with the large, sophisticated corporate defendants we face.”
Clean air activists said the letter as proof that the Bush administration is saying it wants cleaner air while cutting deals with the industry to ease up on pollution controls.
“This letter really strips away the veil and gives the lie to the Bush administration’s claim that it’s working to clean up the air,” said Frank O’Donnell, director of the Clean Air Trust.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and a critic of Bush’s environmental policies, called the resignation “a wake-up call telling us that the Bush administration is quietly eliminating clean air protections by refusing to enforce the law against its utility industry allies.”
WHITMAN IN THE MIDDLE
The letter, written to EPA chief Christie Whitman, concluded, “I believe you share the concerns I have expressed.”
Schaeffer told MSNBC.com that Whitman has been “doing some pushing back” against pressure from the White House and the Energy Department, which is pushing for greater energy production. “How far she’ll get and whether she’ll win I don’t know,” he said.
Whitman, when she was New Jersey’s governor, was a vocal supporter of lawsuits against power plants whose pollutants were ending up in other states like New Jersey.
As EPA chief, she has said the lawsuits that were settled will be honored but has been less clear about the possibility of future lawsuits.
Whitman praised a “Clear Skies” initiative announced earlier this month by President Bush as “the most aggressive initiative to cut air pollution in a generation.”
Environmentalists disagreed, saying that abiding by the Clean Air Act would cut pollution more than the new initiative.
Democrats in the Senate have raised similar concerns and are likely to block passage of the proposal.
Whitman’s spokesman, Joe Martyak, countered Schaeffer’s criticisms by saying the Clear Skies initiative represented the best approach to reducing power plant pollution.
He also denied the allegations of tension and an administration divided over policy.
“I don’t characterize it as tension,” he said. “You have different agencies with different missions” and the Energy Department, for example, focuses on improving energy supplies.
That interagency dialog, he added, “comes up with the best policy overall.”
“Is there tension?” he asked. “I’d say there are difficult situations but it’s not an issue of conflict, but working through” the issues.
Martyak also said the EPA remains committed to enforcing environmental laws, and that the measure of success should not be in the number of EPA staff jobs but in results. Those include the fact that the dollar amount spent by violators on cleanups has doubled, he said.
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