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Twenty minutes with Carol Browner.

The drab white linoleum hallways of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters hardly prepare you for the penthouse suite of offices that is administrator Carol Browner's world. The walls have imitation Audubon bird prints, the picture windows overlook the grassy banks along the Potomac River, and a small crew of secretaries sound like air traffic controllers trying to land appointments far down Browner's schedule. As I'm ushered into her office, which seems like a living room with its white couch and elegant wooden bookcases, a photographer adjusts his white light umbrella and Browner greets me warmly. She began the day at a White House ceremony, where President Clinton unveiled his Northwest Forest Plan, and after our visit she must huddle with her aides about a crisis over the North American Free Trade Agreement. But for 20 minutes, her time is ours. She looks radiant in a short dusky blue dress and big golden earrings that shine under her short brunette haircut. Unlike press photos in which she seems tight-lipped and stiff-shouldered, she's very animated in person - smiling, waving her hands, checking the tape recorder, tackling questions before I finish asking them.

At times Browner sounds like a supercharged bureaucrat, getting excited, for example, over "moving 80 significant rule packages" by the end of the year. But she catches herself dipping into EPA-speak and says with a smile: "Not that people care about this!" She is a hyper-bright lawyer, but also a populist at heart, known for taking a moment after meetings to establish a personal rapport with people. She's friendly with EPA employees in the elevator, rides the subway to work, and last Earth Day donned a "One Less Car" T-shirt to bicycle commute from her home in Maryland, where she lives with her husband, Michael Podhorzer, who works for the advocacy group Citizen Action, and their five-year-old son, Zachary.

At age 37, Browner has been a government wunderkind, serving as Senator Al Gore's legislative director and as head of the Florida state environmental agency. (She grew up near Miami, where her parents both teach at Miami-Dade Community College.) She inherits an agency with over 17,700 employees, a $6.9 billion budget, and a troubled history. "The U.S. has the most comprehensive set of environmental laws in the world," noted a critical report by the Center for Resource Economics, yet the EPA "cannot ensure that American communities and industries are in full compliance with a single federal environmental law."

But Browner doesn't wallow in difficulties. She often tells a story about a cab ride with Zachary. The driver asked him what his mom did, and he replied, "She saves things." "Saves things? What kind of things?" asked the cabbie. "Oh, she saves air...water...trees - and bananas." Zachary may be thinking about his favorite food, but Browner must think about his future. Environmental protection, she has said, is really child protection: "Their little bodies have to live with our decisions. They will inherit the world we pass on."

E: Many environmentalists were closet fans of your predecessor, William Reilly. One even said that he raised the agency to a level of genuine mediocrity, a compliment after the worst of the Reagan years. How do you assess the EPA?

Browner: William Reilly did a very good job in a very difficult situation. He was dealing with a White House that didn't care about the issues. He cared. The people here cared. But they were up against a vice president and a Competitiveness Council that wasn't interested in making tough decisions and striking a balance. This administration believes the economy and the environment are intertwined. It is not a choice between one or the other. A healthy economy needs a healthy environment, and vice versa.

The EPA is a great place. People care very much about their work. We've already done some good things. We've added about 200 chemicals to the list that companies must report to the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory, which is among our most potent environmental weapons. It is really a roadmap of toxic chemicals, right down to the local level, and it puts that information directly at the fingertips of citizens. And President Clinton has issued an executive order that requires Federal agencies to report the same information as private facilities do. We've also made it a chief priority to bring already-operating hazardous waste incinerators and industrial furnaces under permit controls. This means that for the next year we will give low priority to new facilities and temporarily freeze capacity at existing levels. That's a good example of something that Bill Reilly and the agency wanted to do, but the White House wouldn't let it happen.

We've also signed the Great Lakes water quality initiative, a four-year effort among the eight Great Lakes states and Indian tribes to set new standards for the protection of humans, wildlife and aquatic life throughout the region. That's been a tremendous step forward in how we develop regulations, getting public participation and looking at the whole watershed. But Bill Reilly and the agency couldn't get it out of the White House. We came in, got it approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and presented it for public comment. We're now looking at implementation rather than an argument with the Council on Competitiveness.

How do you work with Al Gore and [White House Office on Environmental Policy director] Katie McGinty?

It's great. All of the environmental agencies work together. Take pesticides. I come from a state that uses lots of pesticides, so we were aware of the need to focus on them from the day we got here. We said to the White House, why don't you convene an inter-agency group with the EPA, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration? We brought everyone together and came to an agreement that for the first time ever the federal government is committed to real reductions in pesticide use. All three agencies will now work with the growers, the chemical manufacturers, the food producers, and environmental and consumer groups to promote alternative farming methods.

The Northwest Forest Plan is another good example. You have five government agencies that had sued each other for years. And for what benefit? They weren't making any progress that was making anybody happy. So Katie McGinty's office brought the five government agencies together, and now we have come out with a plan to allow for more logging and to protect the spotted owl. It also takes a long term view. What's the next problem? The salmon. You're talking about lots of fishing jobs. So the plan is based on watershed protection, and it has a sound scientific basis. We wanted to avoid future fights over individual species in resolving this one.

Environmentalists were very disappointed that your operating budget didn't go up at all in 1993. A lack of money may be the most crippling problem the EPA faces.

It is extremely important that we reduce the deficit. The long term economic health of this country is good for the environment. A healthy economy allows for more resources to be spent on behalf of the environment, such as private sector investments in the technologies of pollution prevention. The president's budget is a significant step toward real deficit reduction.

It is true that our responsibilities have grown tremendously. The Clean Air Act is the most recent example. It's a complicated piece of legislation, involving a lot of work on our part, writing the rules and lining up the states to take on the responsibilities envisioned for them. But I think the budget is fair. It allows us to do a good job.

After the election, Vice President Gore said that the government would fully investigate the background of the Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. But the EPA has now given the incinerator a permit to operate. is this a broken promise?

I don't think a promise was broken. It was the last administration that issued the permit. The investigation and analysis are under way. But the EPA ethics officer has removed me from participation in this case. My husband works for an organization that has taken a position on WTI. That created the appearance for a potential conflict of interest. The public has every right to hold public officials to higher standards.

Another incinerator wrapped up in controversy is the Vertac plant in Jacksonville, Arkansas, which is burning dioxin left over from Agent Orange. Several groups have asked a judge to stop the burning because the incinerator failed to meet some EPA standards, but the EPA wants the court to let the incinerator keep operating.

There's a bigger issue here. WTI is a commercial hazardous waste disposal facility. Vertac is a Superfund cleanup. You have tens of thousands of barrels of dioxin that have got to be disposed of so we can protect the public health and the natural resources. When we deal with Superfund cleanup issues - righting past wrongs - we make tough decisions that can be controversial.

We've done a lot of good things with Superfund. We've had 3,300 emergency responses where the public was protected immediately. There are no sites in the country where some action hasn't been taken to protect the public from immediate exposures that would happen from walking by or touching something. Obviously, we need to do a better job of getting areas that are Superfund sites back into productive use. There's nothing worse than driving through a community and seeing a fenced off area. It's a visual blight. Sometimes you see the fence torn down and kids playing there. We don't want that. We want to get those areas cleaned up.

What's wrong with the Delaney clause? [This rule from 1957 prohibits any residues from carcinogenic pesticides from appearing in processed foods. Browner upset environmentalists by suggesting that it needs to be revised.]

Delaney focuses on processed foods with cancer-causing pesticides. We know there are lots of other consequences from pesticide use that are appropriate to analyze and understand: reproduction, development, birth defects, and neuro-toxic, immunal and hormonal effects. I think it's appropriate after 30 years to take another look at the law. The most important thing is to reduce the overall use of pesticides. By doing that we will automatically reduce risks and we won't have to spend all this time worrying about lots of complicated things.

There's a perennial debate among environmental groups on how best to lobby the government - protest in front of the EPA, or try to meet you for dinner. What really works?

I am more than happy to meet with anybody about any issue, and I hope that all of my colleagues are, too. The public's participation in the work we do is absolutely essential. When we have an informed, involved public, making the right environmental decision becomes easy. In the Great Lakes, there were literally a hundred public meetings in the region before the rule was written, saying to these people - you live on these lakes, you work on these lakes, you drink the water from these lakes, what do you think is the right thing to do? The people, the cities, the states, and the industries in that region came back with the strongest water quality standards that have ever been set in this country. I saw the same thing in Florida. We'd get the citizens involved, give them the information, and they would make the tough decisions. The environment always benefitted. As for what people think is the right way to approach us, they have to decide that for themselves. There's not a wrong way.
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Title Annotation:EPA chief
Author:Nixon, Will
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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