Sen. Whitehouse Compares EPA Firing To U.S. Attorney Scandal: ‘Déjà Vu All Over Again’

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"Sen. Whitehouse Compares EPA Firing To U.S. Attorney Scandal: ‘Déjà Vu All Over Again’"

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed Midwest regional administrator Mary Gade, one of ten such officials appointed directly by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. Gade — a lifelong Republican and a prominent supporter of George W. Bush‘s pursuit of the presidency in 2000 — told the Chicago Tribune, “There’s no question this is about Dow.” Gade was locked in a battle with Dow Chemical over the cleanup of dioxin poisoning from its world headquarters in Michigan. As former EPA official Robert Sussman writes in the Wonk Room, “To remove a Regional Administrator because of a disagreement over policy at an individual site is unheard of.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) just spoke on the Senate floor about Gade’s firing. Whitehouse compared her firing with the U.S. Attorney scandal that enveloped the Department of Justice and led to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s resignation:

We do not yet know all the details of Ms. Gade’s firing, or everything that may have gone on between her office and Dow Chemical. But from everything that we’ve heard and seen so far, it looks like déjà vu all over again. From an administration that values compliance with its political agenda more than it values the trust or the best interests of the American people. Last year we learned that this is an administration that wouldn’t hesitate to fire capable federal prosecutors when they wouldn’t toe an improper party line. Today it seems that the Bush Administration might have once again removed a highly qualified and well-regarded official whose only misstep was to disagree with the political bosses.

Watch it:

Sen. Whitehouse also announced that he is conducting an oversight hearing into the politicization of the EPA and the circumstances of Gade’s dismissal next Wednesday. The last time EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson testified before Sen. Whitehouse, he put in a shameful performance, leading Whitehouse to state:

In my short time in Washington, I didn’t think I would again encounter a witness as evasive and unresponsive as Alberto Gonzales was during our investigation of the U.S. Attorney scandal. Unfortunately, today EPA Administrator Johnson stooped to that low standard.

UPDATE: Kate Sheppard at Gristmill writes that, according to an Energy and Commerce Committee spokesperson, Committee Chair John Dingell (D-MI) “is concerned about this and has asked his oversight staff to look into it.”

UPDATE II: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-MI) noted that Gade stepped down “the same day that Indiana forwarded its final draft air permit for the BP Whiting plant to EPA Region 5 for its review.” He has “asked for a meeting with the Administrator of EPA so that I can better understand why Ms. Gade has been placed on administrative leave,” and called on President Bush to “act swiftly to fill this important position with an administrator who will protect Lake Michigan and the communities that surround it.”

Sen. Whitehouse’s full remarks on politics at EPA, as prepared for delivery:

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, for much of last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee was engaged in a troubling inquiry. We were trying to determine whether the Bush administration had fired several United States Attorneys for political reasons – because they were not “loyal Bushies.”

That inquiry continues. But over its course, the incompetence and misjudgments it uncovered cost a number of Justice Department officials their jobs – including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who made clear that he put loyalty to the President before the faithful exercise of his office. It also cost this proud Department the morale of its staff and the trust of the American people, who were left to wonder whether federal prosecutions in this country arose out of the pursuit of justice or the pursuit of political advantage.

This morning, we awoke to the news that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator for the Midwest, Mary Gade, was forced to resign in the midst of a heated debate over dioxin contamination in waters near Michigan. According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, Ms. Gade invoked emergency powers last year to force Dow Chemical, headquartered in Michigan, to clean up several areas saturated with the toxic chemical, a dangerous carcinogen which was a byproduct of Agent Orange.

She later broke off negotiations with the company on a more comprehensive cleanup, citing concerns that Dow had been reluctant to take steps to protect health and wildlife. At that point, the Tribune’s report says, the company asked EPA officials in Washington to intervene, though Dow said yesterday it had nothing to do with Ms. Gade’s dismissal. The paper wrote Ms. Gade said that high-ranking EPA officials “repeatedly questioned her aggressive action against Dow.” It quoted Ms. Gade as saying: “There is no question this is about Dow.”

We do not yet know all the details of Ms. Gade’s firing, or everything that may have gone on between EPA and Dow Chemical. But from all we have heard and seen, Mary Gade’s story seems like déjà vu all over again from an administration that values compliance with a political agenda over the best interests of the American people.

Last year, we learned that this administration would not hesitate to fire federal prosecutors who didn’t toe the party line. Today, it seems that the Bush administration has once again to remove a highly-qualified and well-regarded official whose only misstep, it appears, was to disagree with her political bosses.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, the story of Mary Gade is not only a distressing signal that the Bush administration may again be making hiring and firing decisions based on political loyalty. This is also just the latest in a growing pile of evidence of a troubling and destructive force at work within our government, one with serious consequences for our environment, our natural resources, and our public health.

We’ve always known that the Bush Administration was no friend to our environment. Over and over again for seven long years, this administration has put forward, under false flags, policies that would do great harm to the environment. From a Clear Skies initiative that would increase air pollution, to a national energy policy written by oil industry lobbyists, the Bush approach to environmental protection has been Orwellian.

That pattern continues even to this day. Not long ago, President Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced what his administration characterized as a new strategy to address climate change. With Americans all over this country crying out for a bold, visionary plan to tackle the threat of global warming, a problem that threatens to engulf this nation and the entire world within generations if nothing is done, President Bush’s proposal was neither “new” nor a “strategy.”

Instead, the President announced what he called “a new national goal:” voluntary action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Let me say that again: voluntary action to reduce emissions by 2025.

Mr. President, there are a couple of problems with that approach. First: the President’s so-called strategy would allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise for another 17 years – even though overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that unless we take immediate action to cut global warming pollutants, we might be too late to prevent the most serious impacts of global climate change.

Second: President Bush offered no initiatives that might reduce emissions now or in the future, and made clear that on his watch, the United States Government will never require polluters to make such reductions. But as every American not working in the Bush administration understands, voluntary action, without strength of will or force of law, simply isn’t enough to tackle the magnitude of this problem.

And finally, even as the President announced this empty, so-called renewed commitment to fighting global warming, his administration reiterated that it will oppose a specific, detailed plan for addressing the climate change problem that the Senate will likely take up after the Memorial Day recess – the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act.

This trifecta would merely be laughable, were the situation not so serious. And there is always the distasteful possibility, given this administration’s long and destructive history of disregard for environmental concerns, that this is a stalking horse, intended to prevent real progress on climate change; a way to leave this problem, like so many others, for the next President to solve.

Regrettably, the President’s announcement is also a stunning failure of leadership in a world community that is quickly growing unaccustomed to American leadership.

* * *

Mr. President, we’ve known for a long time that politics of special interests is at the bottom of this, and that the Bush White House has repeatedly interfered with the decision-making process at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, in thrall to the checkbooks of the oil companies, the gas companies, the chemical companies, the timber companies, the coal companies, and the auto companies.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw new evidence of how deeply this corrosive political influence has seeped within EPA – the primary federal agency charged with protecting our environment and public health. A report issued on April 23 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, entitled “Interference at the EPA,” is a scathing indictment of the decision-making process at EPA from those who know it best: the agency’s career scientists. The report consisted largely of a survey of EPA scientists and found that 60 percent of those surveyed had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years. The report documents, among many other things, that many EPA scientists have been directed to inappropriately exclude or alter information from EPA science documents, or have had their work edited in a manner that resulted in changes to their scientific findings. The survey also revealed that EPA scientists have often objected to, or resigned or removed themselves from, EPA projects because of pressure to change scientific findings. Mr. President, the conclusion could not be clearer: EPA is an agency in crisis.

Once upon a time, anyone working at EPA could be proud of their agency’s reputation as the international gold standard in the area of environmental protection. Indeed, for most of its 40-year history, all Americans could place their trust EPA’s independent, science-based leadership in safeguarding our natural resources and our public health. In a 1970 press release setting forth the agency’s mission, its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, stated EPA’s role unequivocally. I quote:

“EPA is an independent agency. It has no obligation to promote agriculture or commerce; only the critical obligation to protect and enhance the environment.”

Administrator Ruckelshaus was a Republican, appointed by President Nixon. Yet both he and the President who appointed him intended EPA to be immune from political pressure, to be guided by the twin lodestars of law and science in discharging that “critical obligation to protect and enhance the environment.”

However, in recent years and especially during the tenure of Administrator Johnson, we have seen EPA’s leadership, in cahoots with its White House allies, despoil these basic principles of independence and scientific integrity. Here are only a few examples from the long bill of particulars that indicts the leadership of this once-vaunted agency:

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has falsified data and fabricated results of studies regarding the safety of the air around the site of the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11th.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has selectively edited government reports, including the EPA’s 2003 Report on the Environment, to support uncertainty in climate change science, placing the imprimatur of the government of the United States of America on fringe views soundly rejected by essentially the entire world scientific community.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has routinely tampered with regulatory and scientific processes to achieve results sought by industry, at the expense of our public health and environment. For example, in 2004, EPA allowed North Dakota to alter the way it measured air quality, to bring Theodore Roosevelt National Park into compliance with air quality standards without actually reducing pollution.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has hidden, suppressed, and delayed the release of scientific findings in order to affect the impacts of EPA decisions, as in the case of a 2002 report on the effects of mercury on children’s health that EPA delayed for nine months and released only after it was leaked to the media.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has disregarded legally mandated scientific and administrative procedures, as in the case of the agency’s failure to abide by the Supreme Court’s recent decision on regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has stacked the EPA’s leadership and its advisory committees with industry allies, removing the respected scientists who argued for stronger public protections. A prime example of this is the removal, at the request of the industry lobbying group the American Chemistry Council, of toxicologist Deborah Rice from an EPA toxics advisory committee. Dr. Rice had argued for more stringent EPA standards for regulating certain chemicals used in commercially available plastics products. Not only was Dr. Rice removed the panel in a particularly Orwellian maneuver, but the fact that Dr. Rice had ever been on the panel was stricken from the panel’s records.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has ignored the recommendations of career staff and scientists when they collided with White House political imperatives, as in the case of the agency’s decision on the so-called California wavier.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has reduced enforcement of environmental regulations by opening fewer criminal investigations and filing fewer lawsuits against corporate polluters.

— The George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has not only failed to protect, but sought reprisals against, agency employees who pointed out problems, reported legal violations, and attempted to correct factual misrepresentations made by their superiors. Amazingly, the EPA’s office of general counsel has invoked the doctrine of sovereign immunity against whistleblowers suing the agency because of actions taken by the agency in reprisal for whistleblowing activity.

— And the George Bush Environmental Protection Agency has had its lawyering literally mocked by U.S. appellate courts — which in one case, condemned EPA’s defense of its regulation as possible “only in a Humpty-Dumpty world,” and in another case, accused the agency of “deploying the logic of the Queen of Hearts” from Alice in Wonderland in its interpretation of the law.

It makes one’s skin crawl to see the ways in which EPA’s leadership under the Bush Administration has put the interests of big business CEOs and lobbyists before the health and welfare of our environment and the American people.

The consequences of this are dire.

First, in a world that presents complex challenges to our public health, our environment, and our national security, the elevation of corporate interests over independent, science-based decision-making threatens America’s ability to respond effectively, and to provide the kind of leadership that the world expects and the American people deserve.

Second, the Administration’s conduct has demoralized EPA’s professional workforce – the scientists, lawyers, and regulatory experts to whom EPA owes its reputation as a champion of environmental protection and who, time and time again during this Administration, have seen their expert counsel set aside in favor of a partisan political agenda.

Third, President Bush and this Administration have compromised the faith of the American people in the integrity of their government. The President’s eagerness to do the bidding of the special interests and the Administrator’s willingness to kowtow to the White House, to the detriment of sound public policy, only confirm what too many in this country most fear: that the United States of America is no longer governed by and for the people. When policy is made for special interests and not for the public good, America is left weaker. No matter our partisan or ideological standings, I hope that no one in this room would want to do such a thing to this great country.

The Bush Administration has done lasting harm to our environment and the confidence of the American people. Next Wednesday, May 7th, at 9:30 a.m., I will join Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, for an oversight hearing to look into the many actions by this Bush Administration, and its EPA Administrator, which seem to be so badly at odds with the recommendations of the agency’s scientists and the best interests of the American people.

Chairman Boxer has been dogged in her pursuit of the truth behind the machinations of EPA’s leadership and the Bush White House, and her leadership will be critical as we try to get to the bottom of this. We plan to ask tough questions — and we expect honest answers — because the American people deserve an Environmental Protection Agency that lives up to its name.

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