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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2001 : Cover Story

Cover Story
One Size Does Not Fit All

by Penny S. Bonda, FASID
and Katie Sosnowchik

How do you—or even, can you— move the 30-year-old U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into the21st century? If it’sto be done, Christie Todd Whitman, the agency’s newest administrator, is up to the task at hand.

With the ease of an accomplished diplomat who knows her facts inside and out, Whitman appears eager to move beyond the agency’s previous “command and control” mode. Instead, Whitman advocates forging new partnerships. “It’s time for us to build on those and not to expect that it’s going to be the federal government that has all the answers,” she says.

Indeed, she emphasizes, there is no one answer that’s going to meet everyone’s needs.

More Cover Story Articles

Six months of environmental progress

Renewable Energy for Cincinnati Labs

In support of a cabinet-level department

On January 21, 2001, Christie Todd Whitman was sworn in as administrator of the EPA. Her confirmation hearings were anything but smooth sailing; Whitman’s critics debated what they viewed as her pro-business stance, citing not only her record as governor of New Jersey, but also her own testimony before the U.S. Senate, in which she said she believed that “environmental and economic goals go hand-in-hand.”

Yet, in the end, it was her environmental accomplishments as governor that eventually led to her confirmation. From the time that she was elected governor seven years earlier (the state’s first female governor), the number of days that New Jersey violated the federal one-hour air quality standard for ground level ozone dropped from 45 in 1988 to four in 2000. The state is also on target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels.

In addition, beach closings in New Jersey reached a record low, and the state earned recognition by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for instituting the most comprehensive beach monitoring system in the nation. Whitman won voter approval for a plan to break a long-standing impasse over dredging the state’s ports. She also established a new watershed management program, and New Jersey now leads the nation in opening shellfish beds for harvesting.

Finally, as a preservationist, Whitman, the governor, won voter approval for the state’s first stable funding source to preserve one million more acres of open space and farmland by the year 2011. Calling this one of her greatest accomplishments, nearly as much land—more than 250,000 acres—was preserved during her administration as in the previous three decades of the state’s land preservation program. Whitman is a vocal advocate of smart growth and she encourages redevelopment of cities through programs to streamline cleanups of abandoned industrial brownfield sites.

It is, perhaps, because of her first-hand knowledge of what needs to be done at the local and state level that provides her with a unique perspective of what can and should be done by a federal agency such as the EPA. The best solutions, she says, lie at these levels. Yet, she also admits that without federal legislation, state and local governments can only go so far. It is her job now to provide the framework within which state and local governments can work.

Whitman spends much time taking her message on the road, delivering it to grassroots groups as well as national and international organizations from Florida to New York, from Alaska to Texas and numerous points in between. She has delivered nearly 50 major policy speeches in the past six months and met with numerous stakeholder groups from government, business, industry and environmental groups as well as interested citizens. Her message, as summarized in her recent agency progress report, is clear: “In keeping with the president’s philosophy of government, EPA is promoting market-based solutions to environmental challenges, focusing on environmental results over bureaucratic process and building partnerships with the American people.”

Whitman took time in August to talk with green@work about her goals for the EPA and the challenges that lie ahead in accomplishing them. She also responded to criticism that has been leveled at the current administration’s stance on some of the issues. Whitman does not shy away from either. “Just because something’s hard,” she says, “doesn’t mean you don’t do it.”

As EPA administrator, what are your immediate objectives and your long-term goals?

WHITMAN: I will start with the long-term goals. What I want to be able to say when I leave office—what the president wants to be able to say when he leaves office—is that during the course of our time here, we made the air cleaner, the water purer and the land better protected than we found it. That is really what this agency is all about. In order to accomplish this, we obviously have to look at our regulatory process. Are we as efficient and effective as we can be? Is there something more we can do to make sure we are getting done what we want to get done? Are we leveraging all possible partners?

There are some immediate things that I’d like to see done. I think brownfields legislation is very, very important. We can do an awful lot—and it’s not just about cleaning up polluted sites. It’s also about land use and protection of open space. These things all go hand-in-hand. We’re working very actively to be able to present the president with a clean energy bill—a multi-pollutant bill as others call it—to get at those emissions that really have a measurable negative impact on health—caps that are meaningful, that will go beyond what we can get through with the myriad programs we have now. I think we’ll be serving the public better and achieving better results.

We’re also looking very actively at watershed initiatives. We’ve done all the point source work; now it’s more of a challenge. It’s harder to quantify, it involves public participation and education to a much greater degree than anything we’ve done before, and we’re looking for some projects that we can use as models.

Would you say these initiatives are individual goals of yours?

At the moment they are. I’m hoping to make them a goal of the president’s as well.

Many of the things that you talked about—Brownfields for example—are accomplished on a state and/or local level. Do you want to move more environmental initiatives to these levels?

WHITMAN: Well, we think that that’s where the best solutions lie, but I can tell you that without federal legislation, states and local governments can only go so far. As governor of New Jersey, I signed some very far-reaching brownfields legislation that even included some liability protection for the innocent third party that came in to develop it. But even then, since I couldn’t guarantee protection against the federal government coming in as it was all under Superfund, it didn’t take off. We’ve done some extraordinary things in brownfields, but there’s so much more that can be done with federal protections. That’s why it’s important that we act in synch. As far as looking at partnerships and actually getting the work done on the ground, it’s the states and local communities that are there. They know what their problems are. The problems in one state are going to be very different from the problems in another, and answers within a state are going to differ from one part of the state to the other. So what we’re looking for are ways to ensure that we live up to our responsibility as the Environment Protection Agency of protecting the public health and environment. We need to establish standards that are the same, but allow enough flexibility within the regions of the states for them to respond to those challenges in the ways that meet their particular needs.

You have an impressive environmental record as the governor of New Jersey. Of which accomplishments are you most proud?

WHITMAN: I think it would have to be getting a stable source of funding for the million acres of open space. The preservation of that was a goal that had been in the heart of many in the environmental community in New Jersey. They didn’t think they could ever really get anybody to commit to that large of an amount and get the funding source stable. I had a great group of people who were very, very committed to getting that done, and the way it was approved by the voters, I think, will prevent any backsliding in the future.

The thing I liked about it, it wasn’t just open space. It was watershed. It was particular targets of land to be preserved along waterways for parks and recreation and agricultural land. My particular favorite was 2,000 more miles of bike trails.

In your confirmation hearings, you said that you believe that environmental and economic goals can go hand-in-hand. In reality, though, isn’t this pretty hard to accomplish?

WHITMAN: Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean you don’t do it. In fact, if you look at the history of this country in the last 30 years, you’ve seen economic growth of unprecedented levels, you’ve seen energy use increase at enormous levels—and yet you’ve seen environmental greenhouse gases go down. It’s clear you can have both things, and we have a number of programs that prove it. Energy Star is a wonderful program. It’s voluntary, but what happens is that businesses can see what it means to their bottom lines when they save on energy costs by putting a little bit of extra investment up front. We had a facility-wide permit program in New Jersey that teamed our environmental protection people with businesses to help set targets up front, determining acceptable emissions and then its their job to figure out how to get there in a way that keeps them competitive. The process was a little cumbersome, though, so we’re working on a similar program here that is not so cumbersome.

I think what has made it difficult to have good environmental stewardship and economic growth is when you insist on micromanaging from the environmental point of view. This agency, for instance, is not qualified to tell a business how to run its business. What we are qualified—what we’re required—to do is to tell a business what’s acceptable for them to put into the air, the water, the land. But that’s what we should care about, not how they get there.

Should it be performance-based, not prescriptive?

WHITMAN: Absolutely. That’s the way to achieve the goals that we want to achieve. What we found when we did our facility-wide permitting is that when you sit down with businesses and draw their attention to what they were using that was problematic, that was going to result in hazardous emissions, they said, “We don’t even need that chemical, we can do it a different way.” It ended up costing them less money at the front end of the process. So, not only did you cut down on the paperwork that they have to fill out, which is real money to business, but you also engage their creative genius, and they were able to find ways to do even better.

The Acid Rain program is a perfect example again. It’s gone from where we had targets that everybody agreed to, to where we’ve seen improvements at a faster rate than anybody anticipated.

There is renewed interest in making the EPA a Cabinet-level department. Do you believe this is important? Do you think that it’s likely to happen?

WHITMAN: I think it’s a very good move, and I think it’s time for it to happen. It ensures that under every administration the environment will be a recognized partner in all that we do, and that’s important. I don’t know that we’re ever going to go backward. It started with former President Bush when the EPA was invited to the table as a member of the cabinet. I’m accorded that same status by this president. It probably won’t change any of my working relationships—the cabinet has a very good working relationship, and I am considered a member of the cabinet. But that’s this administration, and that’s been the last three. You don’t know if that’s necessarily going to happen in the future. I believe that most Americans feel that the environment is important enough that they want to ensure that it is accorded that kind of status. I think this is the first time that you’ve got the president actively promoting a particular piece of legislation. I think we have two bills—both are clean bills—one’s a little more prescriptive than the other, but nothing that can’t be talked about, negotiated. However, what’s always happened is that people have had their particular issue with the agency that they feel it’s very important to include, and once you open it up for one person to include something on the bill, then someone else wants something else.

Some people who aren’t in favor of this argue that EPA’s decisions are more political and not based solely on science. Do you agree with that?

WHITMAN: It’s probably happened at times. Politics has driven more than policy and science at times, but basically this agency has a very strong scientific background. We do put everything out to peer review. When the science drives the policy, it’s very good. I believe science has got to be the basis of all regulatory actions because otherwise we lack justification for doing what we’re doing. But I know some of the response to critics is that we’ll create an assistant administrator for science; however, you can ignore any assistant administrator that you want to ignore. That isn’t going to guarantee that science is given the kind of precedence that they would like. That’s really a function of the pushback of those who are interested in it, the commitment of the administration to science, the fact that it should be. I’m not against it one way or the other. I can live with that. My only concern is that, again, if you put that in, then somebody else who thinks that that’s just a sneaky way to mean that EPA is never going to do anything, will put something else in, and you start getting all these additions.

It’s a question of the window of opportunity, and I am perfectly willing to talk, and I indicated that in my testimony that those who were interested in having an assistant administrator for science, I’m more than interested in talking to them about it. We’re already in the process of doing some internal changes that would ensure that science is at the forefront.

It’s a regulatory process that we start including it right at the beginning and not bring it in at the end. But if that’s what they want to see, then I said I would work with them on it, but I’d like to see that as a separate discussion, not a part of the capital-level bill.

New Jersey was on target, under your administration, to meet the goals that were set up in the KYOTO treaty to reduce the Greenhouse emissions.

WHITMAN: We set a target to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels, and I said let’s do it with an eye toward Kyoto. We didn’t lock in and agree to all the Kyoto goals.

This administration, though, has said that Kyoto is seriously flawed. How do you reconcile the differences between what appears to be your belief in those goals and the administration’s position?

WHITMAN: What the administration is saying is seriously flawed is the broad issue of global climate change. Developing nations are producing more greenhouse gas emissions today than the developed nations all together. To have a protocol that calls for significant reductions in the United States and does not call for any firm set of dates when you would start to include China—which is second in greenhouse gas emissions to the United States right now and will outpace us in a few years, or India, which is in the top 10—is not going to solve the problem of global climate change. What I was looking at as governor was what we could do to keep reducing emissions—being on the East Coast we are a state that benefits from all that’s done west and southwest of us, and it comes by air.

We have a responsibility to do everything we can, and that’s what I was looking at because you have to care about the health of your public. We also engaged in some lawsuits against some of the other states on transport issues. And I don’t feel that there’s any problem here in saying the president has said he wants to address the issue of global climate change. The president has said he believes this is an important issue. And then, if we can get a multi-emission bill through that puts significant reductions and caps on SOX, NOX and Mercury, we will have done more for public health and clean air than practically any other administration, save Nixon when he started the EPA, probably. It really will be enormous. I mean literally thousands of deaths prevented and tens of thousands of hospital visits avoided if you can reach those levels.

So the president is very committed to cleaning up the air. His concern with Kyoto has to do with how the United States gets credit for sinks, and why aren’t other developing nations involved. If you take China and India—we’re not talking about Guatemala—we’re talking about China and India, large thriving economies, growing economies who, except for some political decisions, would certainly be considered developed nations today. So from the perspective of the national government, I think those are very real concerns.

Do you think the development of hybrid cars should be a priority in our efforts to reduce emissions?

WHITMAN: We certainly know that mobile sources are one of the greatest contributing factors, and the technology doesn’t appear to be there to move up the gas mileage of cars—the alternate fuel vehicles are the ones that will offer real possibility and no reduction in performance. That’s what’s taken a while to get to, but I’ve had the pleasure of having driven a couple of them now, an SUV even, that was a hybrid fuel vehicle, and there was no performance lag at all. That’s why the president’s part of the Energy Task Force report called for both the Department of Energy and for congress to provide some additional incentives to people to increase the research and hurry it along a bit and also to encourage people to buy them by providing some tax incentives. Again, a number of states are doing that where you get significant rebates if you buy an alternate fuel vehicle or a hybrid vehicle.

What would you say are the most important differences in the environmental priorities of the Bush administration versus the Clinton administration?

WHITMAN: Probably a real commitment to listening to partners. This agency has accomplished a lot in its 30-year-history with a command and control model. That’s how it was established, that’s how it’s gone forward and the environment is cleaner. But we are now in a position to take that next step into the 21st century to see more gains by recognizing that the states have become much more sophisticated now. They can be active partners with the federal government. To recognize that in the course of those 30 years people’s attitudes toward the environment has changed. People now understand that there’s a relationship between personal activity and environmental pollution, and they can help protect the environment. They’re much more sensitive to those issues now. So it’s time for us to build on that. People can’t expect that it’s going to be the federal government that has all the answers and is going to do everything.

It is why this administration proposed two new programs in the budget, which recognize that states can be better partners, but that they’re going to need some help from the federal government in terms of providing them with additional resources to do the work that we’re asking them to do. But they’re prepared to do it because they know that one size does not fit all. We are not going to have an answer from Washington that’s going to meet everybody’s needs.

Are you stung by the criticisms that the Bush administration relies too heavily on big business to self regulate?

WHITMAN: I’m frustrated by it. I hear it all the time. Then I look at the first decision I made on diesel fuel. Oil companies were supposed to be the big bad brother who was in there determining everything, and the decision I made went exactly the opposite from what they would have wanted. If you look at the administration overall, there’s this perception—yet if you put it against reality, it doesn’t always track. I don’t think that the criticism the administration gets is always fair.

There are those who also don’t want to see any rethinking of any decision that was made in the past. They believe that if you “rethink” something, that really is just a subtle way of saying you’re going to undo it, that you really didn’t care about it and you’re not going to support it. That’s not true. For example, we were asked, as a part of the Energy Report, to take another look at New Source Review. I don’t know how anybody who’s honest with you could look you in the eye and say that New Source Review has worked the way it was intended to work in retrofitting old power plants. It just has not. For new facilities, I think everybody would say it’s in pretty good shape, it’s working pretty well. But for the old ones, it hasn’t been working the way we wanted it to, and looking at it doesn’t mean it’s just a sneaky way to do away with it. I’ve also heard people say, “Well, you’ve backed off from enforcement, so that really sends a message.” We’re still enforcing. We’re in active negotiations with a number of utilities and just two weeks ago had another settlement of $20 million for a utility. So I hear about how we’re backing away and how we’re not doing it, and the only thing I can think is that these people just don’t want you to look at anything in the hopes that maybe you can improve upon it. And maybe you’re being honest when you say that if you can make it more efficient, if you can make it more effective, you really have an obligation to do that.

Tell us a little bit about the recent EPA decision to follow through on the Hudson River cleanup plan.

WHITMAN: As you know, that’s still the interim record of decision that we’ve gone forward with. It will become final sometime in September. By the end of September it has to be looked at by New York State. They’re reviewing it, and we’re reviewing it here in Washington. And Interior has a role to play. I based that decision really on what the scientists were telling me, what the experts were telling me. I took a hard look at everything that had been done. But there was no question in my mind, and, having been a governor downstate from the Hudson River in New Jersey, I had always been concerned about PCBs in the water. It wasn’t a question of my thinking that PCBs weren’t dangerous. I was totally convinced that PCBs can cause cancer and potential carcinogens in humans, and we want them out of the river.

Yet, that was not the issue for me. The issue was, “Is this the right way to go about it? What about the concerns of re-suspension? Can you dredge in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good?” And I took a long time, I talked with all our people and met with all the legislators and some of the environmental groups that wanted it and with the legislators and residents who didn’t want the project. I heard from all sides. I heard from GE. We asked them in, and they made a couple of proposals. I didn’t see anything that convinced me that it was really better than what we had, that it was really going to go toward solving the problem. But what I did include in it, because of the concerns I felt were legitimate, is the requirement that we monitor this very closely, each step along the way, as we go along; not wait until part of it’s done and then stop for two or three years. That’s not what we’re going to do. We’re talking about ongoing monitoring to see if the re-suspension numbers are where we think they ought to be. Most people think that nothing’s moving on the Hudson, that it’s all encapsulated, and that’s not true. Five hundred pounds of PCBs go over that dam every year. What the scientists tell me is that, in the course of dredging, they estimate about 40 pounds more of PCBs would be put into the river, but given what you’re taking out, it’s going to be a net gain for the river all along the way. Well, we need to watch that and make sure that’s what’s happening. If it’s not, we can stop it. It’s our obligation, our responsibility to the people on the river, both up river and down river, and really to the taxpayers overall—though GE is hopefully going to pay for this. Once we sign, once the record of decision becomes final, there’s an obligation to ensure that this is working.

Can you comment on recent Congressional actions regarding drilling in the Artic national wildlife refuge? How do you answer critics who argue that it does nothing to address energy concerns or our dependence on foreign oil?

WHITMAN: Well, as you know, that’s more of an Interior issue than it is an EPA issue, but having been a member of the Energy Task Force, I would say it’s interesting because to me it’s a perfect example of how you use statistics in different ways. I have heard a lot of people say it’s only six months’ worth of oil, but what they don’t say is it’s six months’ of oil used today to run every single building, every single house, every single car, truck, bus in the United States for six months. That’s an awful lot of oil. The other way to look at it is it’s more than 30 years of import, I believe, from Saudi Arabia—it’s the same set of figures. Nobody’s lying, it’s just the way you look at it. The whole truth is not just six months. That’s six months if you used it, just that oil, to fuel every single thing in this country that uses oil. And, of course, that never happens.

Also, there are new technologies now that give us the ability to do things in new ways, such as you don’t drill all over the place. You don’t put a whole lot of derricks all over the place and degrade the land that way. You do one, and then you run horizontally. You do it in wintertime so that when the ice roads melt, you don’t see it in the summer. There are ways to do it that have much less environmental impact than we’ve known in the past. And given that you’re talking about a significant amount of oil—really, if you look at it relative to foreign dependence on imported oil, which, of course, has a lot to do with price and everything else—it’s probably worth going to take a look.

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