The EPA’s Head Environmentalist

The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect public health and the environment. Yet the agency has not done much protection of the environment, public health or the public interest in many, many years. The President-elect’s pick for the agency is going to have to turn around an environmental crisis that mirrors the financial one. While Obama’s rumored cabinet picks are largely people who cut their teeth in the Clinton administration, or showed rare bipartisanship over the past eight years, one place a centrist will not do is the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are some good environmental laws on the books; the problem is enforcement. The Bush administration has encouraged the worst industrial practices by, for example, refusing to regulate mercury from power plants or allowing mountaintop removal mining—and the incrementalists who ran EPA during the Clinton administration bear at least some responsibility. They should not be invited back.

The new EPA leadership is going to have to do two things.

The first is to throw the moneychangers out of the temple, literally: Replace Bush’s corporate goons with public servants who will put science first, and rebuild the agency’s enforcement capability and take on corporate interests who, not unlike the financial industry, have operated in an anything-goes world. The second, and perhaps more important role, will be to rebuild confidence in the agency and in the federal government’s commitment to protect our citizens and our environment.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has been mentioned as a possible pick for the office, and the question immediately arises: Is he too controversial? Now I might not be the guy to weigh in here—I worked for him for four years at Waterkeeper Alliance. But I’ve also spent most of my adult life working on federal environmental policy, including as a mediator working on major EPA drinking water and water pollution regulations, and I have no use for another EPA administrator who’s averse to controversy. Obama has inspired and reaffirmed a confidence in America that many of us never knew we had; in my humble (and admittedly biased) opinion, RFK, Jr. would do the same for our environmental agency. —Eddie Scher