Jumping Ship at the EPA

When John Suarez, the U.S. EPA's top enforcement official, resigned on Monday to take a job at a Wal-Mart division, he assured his colleagues and President Bush that the EPA has "been able to provide more compliance assistance to industry than ever before." The operative wording here, of course, is "assistance to industry," seeing as Suarez played a key role in the notorious decision by the Bush administration to scrap lawsuits against dozens of coal-burning utilities for past dirty-air infringements under the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act -- one of the biggest and most controversial enforcement lapses in the agency's history.

To make the situation even more absurd, Suarez concluded his resignation letter by saying, "I can assure you that the enforcement and compliance efforts are [left] in good hands at EPA." [Download a PDF copy of the letter.] Apparently, he failed to notice that there are a fast-dwindling number of good hands after an exodus of senior talent from the EPA over the holidays, including the unexpected retirements of two top-level career employees in the agency's enforcement division just weeks before Suarez's own announcement. Bruce Buckheit, who had served in the EPA through six presidential administrations, and his deputy, Richard Biondi, both retired with clear signs of indignation about the Bush administration's disregard for their positions.

"I just didn't feel comfortable working in that environment anymore," Biondi told Muckraker from his home soon after his resignation. "Certainly the direction that the agency was going over the last couple years was different than what I'd experienced during my 32 years working for EPA. It was contrary to everything that I had worked for."

Buckheit, who was director of the EPA's air enforcement division, is on extended holiday travel and could not be reached, but made strong statements to Greenwire just before his departure: "This new enforcement policy [under the Bush administration] will stop almost all work in the power plant enforcement world," he said. "If there was any interesting and useful work [left] in the power plant sector, I'd still be [at my desk]."

They're not the first to take a stand: Eric Schaeffer, former director of EPA's regulatory enforcement division, quit EPA in February 2002 in a fury and sent a withering public resignation letter to then-Administrator Christie Whitman. Sylvia Lowrance, an agency employee for more than 20 years who was in Suarez's very shoes as acting Assistant Administrator of the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance for the first 18 months of the Bush administration, retired quietly in July 2002. Though at the time she did not speak out, she has since voiced serious misgivings about the state of the enforcement program.

In fact, the number of EPA enforcement staff has fallen to its lowest level since the agency was established, having decreased by 12 percent -- from 528 to 464 -- since Bush took office. According to a former EPA employee who spoke on condition of anonymity, the administration is working on a master plan to quietly get rid of the senior career staff at EPA. The plan is carried out through one very effective strategy: an incentive for early retirement. "I've heard that they are offering a financial incentive of $25,000 in addition to their retirement plans to get out," said the former official. "The Bush administration is the first ever to offer such a plan to senior officials at EPA."

This is rumored to be precisely the bait that hooked both Buckheit and Biondi: The administration offered them a buyout. And given the officials' tremendous frustrations, it's perfectly understandable that they took it. "This administration came in with a very obvious bias against the career staff at EPA," said Lowrance. "I think that they believed that many of us were not in tune with their thinking about environmental standards and enforcement, and therefore didn't trust their career staff from the beginning. But what's interesting about these retirement incentives is that EPA is not exactly one of the older agencies in government -- there isn't a whole bunch of dead wood sitting at the top echelons."

Another problem, added Lowrance, is that retirees are not just dropping out of the enforcement office. "There are people retiring all over EPA," she said. "I can think of about half a dozen people that have recently decided to leave the Superfund office, for example -- a program where the administration is totally ignoring the funding demands for toxic waste cleanup."

But how does Suarez fit into this crisis of conscience that's sweeping the agency? He was a Whitman-appointed Republican loyalist whose prior job was overseeing gambling laws in New Jersey's Atlantic City casinos. He had no previous professional connection to the environment and had voiced no objections to the toothless EPA enforcement system. So what would cause him to leave?

"For months I've been hearing rumors that Suarez was frustrated with his position and wanted out," Schaeffer said. The anonymous former EPA employee added that Suarez was concerned about his reputation: "As chief law enforcer for environmental protection in this country, it was clear to everyone [in Washington] that he was summarily unsuccessful -- that he was not able to run an effective enforcement program under this administration," said the former official. "So from a reputation standpoint, there were pretty clear indicators that he should resign."

As far as environmentalists are concerned, Suarez's departure is a welcome riddance. There's even a bit of humor in the fact that Suarez suddenly decided to jump the EPA ship for Wal-Mart -- as if protecting the welfare of the world's largest company is an altogether more upstanding pursuit than enforcing environmental law throughout the U.S. But there's nothing humorous in the mass exodus of the agency's seasoned officials, because, as Schaeffer observed, "with us goes the institutional memory of the agency." All the people who had a connection to and understanding of the regulatory framework of the past will be replaced with new blood -- employees who will more easily dismiss and forget the decades of regulations that the Bush administration has set out to dismantle.

Amanda Griscom writes for Grist

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