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Energy Secretary Picks Nevada Site for Nation's Nuclear Waste
H. Josef Herbert . Washington Post/AP . 10 january 2002

WRENTON, Dec. 25 — In her seven years as governor of New Jersey, Christie Whitman has been firm about how she wants her approach to the environment to be measured. Do not tally up the fines paid by industry and do not count the number of new regulations put on the books, she has urged, but do look at the quality of the air and of the water. And watch for a good balance of competing forces.

"This great country of ours has the ability and the will to build a more prosperous America while meeting our environmental obligations," Mrs. Whitman said Friday in Austin, Tex., as President-elect George W. Bush announced that she was his choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

In New Jersey, whose most recognizable symbols might well be a factory smokestack and the Jersey Shore, industry and the environment make for particularly powerful political forces. And Mrs. Whitman is fond of saying that her policies often subject her to vitriol from business interests and environmental advocates alike.

"The fact that we're being attacked by both sides leads me to believe that we're probably right where we need to be, which is in the middle, to find some kind of common ground," she said in an interview earlier last week in her office in the State House here.

Mrs. Whitman has been a national leader in land conservation, a bold experimenter in finding ways to combat air pollution, a magnetic spokeswoman for smart-growth strategies to prevent suburban sprawl. Leading business groups praise what they call her balanced approach to environmental issues. But some New Jersey environmentalists say that she is a foe doing a remarkable job of masquerading as a friend, loudly preaching the eco- gospel while hobbling regulatory enforcement efforts, chipping away at pollution-control standards, and supporting controversial development projects in New Jersey's vanishing wetlands and woods.

Her record as governor includes noteworthy clashes between state regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency over wetlands development, clean air and clean water, raising questions about how Mrs. Whitman will guide policy at the federal level.

As she said in Austin, "Having served as governor, I also know what it's like to be on the receiving end of mandates from Washington."

Mrs. Whitman, 54, has dealt with virtually every major environmental issue in her seven years in office: regulatory reform, suburban sprawl, air pollution and water quality.

As a regulator, Mrs. Whitman has valued consensus and cooperation over confrontation, styling her approach after that of the Netherlands, where businesses are given great leeway to arrive at goals for pollution control on their own terms.

"She and I share the same point of view," Mr. Bush said in announcing her selection. "We share a philosophy that moves beyond the old, central command-and-control mind-set that believes Washington has got all the answers."

Mrs. Whitman took office in 1994 and sharply altered the regulatory policy of her predecessor, Jim Florio, a zealous environmental advocate who had written the federal Superfund law while in Congress.

Conservatives in Congress who have long wanted to cut back or eliminate the environmental agency might be cheered by a review of Mrs. Whitman's first term: Frequently blaming the state Department of Environmental Protection for causing job losses, she cut its budget by 30 percent and laid off hundreds of workers. She ordered that state regulations be no more stringent than federal rules. And she cut inspections, eliminated penalties and introduced grace periods for violators, to the point that collections of environmental fines plunged 80 percent.

Adopting the motto "Open for Business," Governor Whitman eliminated the environmental prosecutors Mr. Florio had introduced, and replaced a public advocate's office, which had at times sued the state on behalf of environmental groups, with a business ombudsman's office to guide businesses through the permitting process. And she sought to move away from punitive measures toward voluntary compliance.

"We'd spent an awfully long time with a very negative business environment for manufacturers," said Hal C. Bozarth Jr., spokesman for the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey. "What she finally did was to bring the pendulum back somewhere in the middle, to balance economic development and environmental protection."

Jeffrey Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, who is perhaps Mrs. Whitman's harshest critic, put it another way. "A month doesn't go by where we don't find there's been a rollback or attempted rollback," he said.

If Governor Whitman is seen by many as more green than brown — stronger at preserving open space than protecting the air, water and soil from pollution — it may be because her signal achievement was in conservation: borrowing $1 billion to buy up vulnerable parcels of open space in the nation's most densely populated state.

Critics say it will not be enough money to achieve the governor's goal of preserving a million acres of land, and say that on her watch about 60,000 acres have been lost to development each year. Still, more than 250,000 acres of open space and farmland have been protected since 1994, nearly as much as in the prior three decades combined, officials say.

Governor Whitman has spoken frequently of the need to control growth by steering new development to urban areas, redeveloping old industrial sites and reining in suburban sprawl. Yet her administration has supported two projects that would further cut into New Jersey's remaining wetlands: a 200-acre retail development in the Meadowlands, and an eight-mile highway connector through Middlesex County. The federal Environmental Protection Agency opposes both.

The Whitman administration has also been at the vanguard of interstate and international efforts to reduce air pollution, although attempts to reduce in-state emissions have led to embarrassing failures. New Jersey's environmental protection commissioner, Robert C. Shinn Jr., played a crucial role in persuading the Midwestern states to bear responsibility for the air pollution they were exporting to the East, said Ned Sullivan, who was Maine's top environmental official and now runs Scenic Hudson, an advocacy group in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"The Midwestern states had never, until then, admitted that their emissions from dirty, coal-fired power plants were causing the pollution and health problems that we experienced in New Jersey, New York and New England," Mr. Sullivan said. "Gaining that consensus, based on an analysis of the science, was the critical achievement."

The multistate agreement led to the E.P.A.'s 1998 order requiring power plants in 22 states to curb such smog-forming pollution, to lawsuits against those power plants filed by New York, New Jersey and other states, and ultimately to settlements such as one announced last week by the Cinergy Corporation, a utility in Cincinnati that said it would clean up 10 electric generating plants in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

Mrs. Whitman's efforts to comply with the federal Clean Air Act in New Jersey, however, gave rise to a managerial disaster. The governor chose to enhance the state's automobile- emissions inspections to detect more pollutants. But the contract was delayed for two years, ran about $100 million over budget, and, when it finally opened in freezing temperatures last year, proved a nightmare of frozen equipment, lines dozens of cars deep, poorly trained workers and the occasional mangled tire. That the contractors included several Republicans with ties to the state Republican party did not help.

On water, Mrs. Whitman's record is one of progressive ideas, but, critics say, wanting in execution.

She won praise for establishing 20 watershed management areas across New Jersey, setting in motion what advocates say could eventually prove an effective way to put limits on new development. But in 1996, the Department of Environmental Protection, putting into place the federal Clean Water Act, proposed a set of rules that critics said would have let hundreds of millions of gallons of carcinogens and other pollutants into the waterways. Dozens of lawmakers objected, advocates sued, and the E.P.A. rejected the rules.

The state is now revising its proposal, but has encountered heated opposition from environmental groups as well as builders.

Mrs. Whitman, of course, asks to be judged not on the regulatory process itself but on its results — in short, on the quality of New Jersey's water, and of its air. Yet the statistics she chooses to highlight almost always allow for a counterpoint.

On Friday, for example, even as Mrs. Whitman was in Austin, New Jersey's environmental agency released a report on the quality of water in the state's rivers and streams. The report, based on data collected from waterways that flow into the Delaware River in northwest New Jersey, painted a somewhat blurry picture.

The portion of rivers and streams "severely impaired" by pollutants had declined to just 1 percent in 1998 from 5 percent in 1993. But in 1993, 67 percent of the waterways, some of which are used for drinking water, were free of pollution. By 1998, that number had declined to 58 percent.