Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Stephen Johnson and the Misuse of the EPA

Via Thoughts from Kansas, I learned of a major new series of articles at the Philadelphia Inquirer on the state of the EPA. The first article of the series is a profile of Stephen Johnson, the current EPA administrator. Johnson's tenure has been noteworthy for controversy over a multitude of issues, from political interference with scientific research to denial of California's emission standards to foot-dragging on climate change. The Inquirer article has a behind-the-scenes look at one of the more egregious incidents involving Johnson, in which he was initially set to rule that greenhouse gases were causing climate change, that climate change endangered public health, and that the United States was a major contributor of greenhouse gases.

At 2:10 p.m., Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett e-mailed the climate-change draft to the White House as an attachment.

What happened next became Johnson's defining moment and cemented President Bush's environmental legacy, serving as the low-water mark of a tumultuous era that has left the EPA badly wounded, largely demoralized and, in many ways, emasculated.

White House aides - who had long resisted mandatory regulations as a way to address climate change - knew the gist of what Johnson's finding would be, Burnett said. They also knew that once they opened the attachment, it would become a public record, making it too controversial to rescind. So they didn't open it.

They called Johnson and asked him to take it back.

The law clearly stated that the final decision was the EPA administrator's, not Bush's. Johnson initially resisted - something Burnett admired - but ultimately did as he was told.

Outraged, Burnett resigned.

In July, Johnson issued a new, censored version, a pale imitation of the original climate-change document.

The old muscular language - including key sentences about U.S. car emissions and the irrelevance of any lingering doubt - was gone. Most of all, the new document no longer declared global warming a danger to public welfare. The move effectively postponed any strong action on climate change well into the next administration.
Aside from his support for deregulation, Johnson shares at least one other trait with White House officials – public professions of faith (Johnson is an outspoken evangelical Christian who praises "the moral compass, that Taylor [University] offered") exist side by side with questionable ethics.
Clearly, Johnson has been eager to execute the Bush agenda. John D. Graham, who was the regulatory guru of the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2006, said one of Johnson's biggest accomplishments as assistant administrator was the repeal of a Clinton-era ban on human pesticide testing....

The human testing studies were not perfect; some did not meet modern ethical standards, Graham said. But advocates were pushing for a ban regardless of their scientific value....

One of the new human tests was the Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS). Funded with $2 million from the chemical industry, CHEERS proposed to record the effects of household pesticides on low-income children in Florida. EPA gave participating families $970, a video camera to record exposure, and a CHEERS T-shirt, calendar and baby bib. EPA scientists would collect urine samples and the children would wear a watch-size sensor one week each month.

Several Democrats were aghast. Boxer and other Democrats put a public hold on his nomination.

"Ethics 101: Testing pesticides on small children and infants is wrong," Boxer said. "This is sick. It's a sick, sick thing."

EPA officials said that the senators were overreacting, that CHEERS merely paid families already using pesticides to monitor their children. Johnson, who began his EPA career in the pesticide office, said that although EPA had no improper ethical intent, it could no longer overcome such an appearance.

He canceled CHEERS - though not other human testing programs - and the senators removed the hold on his confirmation.
There is plenty more in this article about Johnson's background in private industry, his rise to prominence under the Bush administration, and coverage of his other controversial decisions as administrator. Even other Republican EPA administrators believe that Johnson's conduct has been overly political and insufficiently independent. The EPA, like other government agencies, is mandated to follow the best available science when it comes to issues like climate change and public health. It is fairly clear that Johnson used his position to stall for time and punt major decisions to the next administration, rather than obey his legal mandate.