Politics

New direction for the EPA

Under the Bush presidency, the EPA has been a constant source of controversy. Allegations of lax enforcement, and manipulation of scientific studies sparked fights in Congress and lawsuits before the nation's highest court. "Living on Earth's" Jeff Young has a look at what's happened to the agency and the job that lies ahead for the next EPA chief.

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You didn't have to follow the news to know the Environmental Protection Agency had an image problem—all you had to do was watch the Simpson's movie. The villain was the head of the EPA.

Simpsons excerpt: Cargill: I've narrowed your choices down to five options. President: "I need to know what I'm approving" Cargill: "knowing things is overrated!"

How did one of the world's premiere environmental agencies become the punch line to a pop culture joke? Many who worked in EPA say eight years of the Bush Administration left an agency with a disregard for science, a discouraged workforce, and decreased enforcement of laws meant to protect the air, water and public health. And both those who criticize the agency and defend it agree it will not be easy for President Obama's new leaders to change things.

Eric Schaeffer joined EPA under the first President Bush. As head of Civil Enforcement, Schaeffer led efforts to clean up refineries and power plants. But early in 2001 he realized this President Bush was taking the agency in a different direction: "I think that the last eight years was not just about inattention it wasn't like they were just sort of not doing anything, they were actively looking at how to change the decision-making paradigm to move it away from historic 'protect the public health, protect the public welfare,' whatever statutes that EPA has responsibility for, they managed to change the fundamentals of every single one of them."

EPA engineer Hugh Kaufman joined the Agency at its creation and calls the Bush years an attempt to destroy the agency: "The preponderance of people brought in to the agency over the last eight years were basically a very sophisticated wrecking crew. And so the old timers have taken early retirement or left, and basically EPA has been hollowed out. So the agency is going to have to be rebuilt."

Jeff Holmstead led the EPA's air office under Bush for five years. He was responsible for many of the decisions that critics say favored industry over the environment. Holmstead says the Bush EPA pushed for two of the biggest public health victories in the agency's history: a clean air rule to limit power plant emissions and a cleanup of off-road diesel engines.

And Holmstead has a warning for the new EPA team if it wants to get rid of rules and procedures he helped put in place: "It's not nearly as easy as you think. The regulatory apparatus is cumbersome. And it's unrealistic to think anyone can come in and just immediately change things around, that's not the way the system is designed to work."

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Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth.