Environmental observers, including those in the construction industry, are hoping that President Bush’s pick for Environmental Protection Agency administrator, agency veteran Stephen L. Johnson, will be more than a figurehead.

Veteran Johnson spent 24 years at EPA. (Photo courtesy of the
White House)

Bush’s surprise announcement March 4 led some wags to speculate that no prominent outsider wanted the job. It is no secret that Bush’s first EPA administrator, former N.J. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, was frustrated in the post and often disagreed with the White House on policy. Her successor, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, headed the agency for only a year. He now serves as Secretary of the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Gregory Wetstone, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that experience with the past two EPA chiefs "proved that it’s not the man who matters in this job, so much as the mission set by the White House."

Johnson is the first EPA executive who has risen through the ranks to the top job. In his 24 years at the agency, Johnson has served as deputy director of the Office of Pesticide Programs and later as assistant administrator of the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. He served as a deputy administrator for Whitman and Leavitt. Johnson has been acting administrator since Jan. 26, 2005. Earlier in his career, he worked at Hazelton Laboratories and Litton Bionetics Inc.

"Steve will also become the first professional scientist to lead the EPA," Bush said. "I’ve come to know Steve as an innovative problem-solver with good judgment and complete integrity."

Alan Roberson, director of regulatory affairs for the American Water Works Association, calls Johnson "a quick study, a sharp guy, a straight shooter." Even though he has limited experience with the large water and air programs, sources note that EPA has strong senior staff in those areas. Johnson’s selection "signals stability," claims Timothy S. Williams, director of governmental affairs for the Water Environment Federation. His learning curve will be shorter, "which is a plus," Williams says.

If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Johnson will face many challenges, including improving impressions of Bush’s environmental record. That will not be easy with environmental programs facing a 10% budget cut under the White House’s proposed fiscal 2006 spending plan. On Capitol Hill, Johnson will be a lead force to push Clear Skies legislation that aims to cut powerplant pollution 70% by 2018. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is stymied over efforts to pass the bill. On the regulatory side, EPA is close to finalizing an important new rule on mercury.

Spending: Senate Panel Reshuffles, Cuts Subcommittee
The Senate Appropriations Committee has reorganized, dropping the subcommittee that oversaw the Depts. of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development and Environmental Protection Agency. That trims its subcommittee roster to 12, from 13. A recent House appropriations reshuffling resulted in 11 subcommittees.

In the Senate plan, approved March 2, HUD is added to the Transportation-Treasury subcommittee, now chaired by Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), who led the old VA-HUD-EPA panel. EPA goes to the Interior subcommittee; the military construction panel adds VA.

Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who chaired Transportation-Treasury, now heads the Commerce-Justice-science subcommittee.

Corps: Contracting Shift Proposed
In its fiscal 2006 budget request, the Corps of Engineers is seeking to do away with its "continuing contracts" and replace them with the multi-year contracts other agencies use. The House Appropriations Committee has pushed for the change, blasting continuing contracts as "an unsound financial practice."

Continuing contracts carry over from one fiscal year to another, says John Paul Woodley Jr., the top Army civil works official. He says if appropriations in a given year aren’t enough to fund the work a contractor does in that period, the firm may pay for the work itself and seek reimbursement, plus interest, when a new allocation is enacted. Woodley says continuing contracts offer flexibility. But he told the House panel March 3 that they also "involve unfunded obli-gations that sometimes can be large."

Drinking Water: EPA Plans Tighter Rules To Reduce Lead
Early next year the Environmental Protection Agency says it will propose stricter monitoring and reporting rules for water utilities, states, schools and child-care facilities to help ease lead contamination in drinking water.

EPA said the changes to its 1991 lead and copper rule will instruct utilities on corrosion control when implementing treatment changes. The agency also will update testing rules for schools.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski and Sherie Winston