When Environmental and Political Science Clash

The Environmental Protection Agency moved closer this week toward polluting New York's Hudson River. But don't be shocked.

That's what happens when agency policy decisions meet the political ambitions of EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman.

The EPA is trying to force the General Electric Company to spend $500 million in a quixotic effort to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the bottom of the Hudson River.

PCBs are chemicals once widely used as hydraulic and insulating fluids. GE was permitted to discharge PCBs into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977. Over the years, legally — and some accidentally — discharged PCBs were buried and insulated from the river water by layers of silt.

PCBs were banned in 1977 after researchers reported that laboratory animals fed high doses of PCBs had higher rates of liver cancer. Though subsequent research failed to link PCBs with cancer in humans — including data from workers with high-level, long-term exposures — alarmism over PCBs, fueled by environmental activists, persists.

Regardless of whether one believes the science or myths about PCBs, instead of letting sleeping PCBs lie, Whitman wants GE to "clean" the river by dredging — and stirring up — the PCBs in the river bottom.

Whitman isn't the first EPA administrator to push for dredging the Hudson — the controversy is about 25 years old. But many hoped the Bush administration would make its decisions based on science and common sense.

No such luck, though. Whitman's decision-making criteria seem to hinge on her political aspirations.

After spending much of 2001 in the political firestorms caused by Bush administration decisions on global warming and arsenic in drinking water, Whitman now realizes that the EPA administrator's job is a thankless task. According to staff sources, she regrets taking the job and would accept almost any other position in the Bush administration to get out of the EPA.

But with no offers on the horizon, Whitman has her eyes on the Senate seat now held by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.

Under ordinary circumstances, Whitman would have a tough time unseating Torricelli. But Torricelli is under investigation for accepting illegal political contributions. Despite rumors to the contrary, Torricelli's legal problems aren't going away soon.

Whitman doesn't want to blow her improved chances at Torricelli's Senate seat by making controversial decisions on environmental issues — and has told her staff as much.

Environmental activist groups have long agitated for the dredging of the Hudson. This was a done deal under Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

To convince Whitman of the "wisdom" of dredging, activist groups reportedly threatened Whitman that special efforts would be made in 2002 to defeat Republicans in key New York congressional districts.

This is not the sort of political baggage Whitman wants to carry around, especially given her own 2002 election hopes.

The Hudson River, local communities and GE won't be the only ones paying for Whitman's desperate desire to bail out of the EPA.

In the next few weeks, Whitman faces two major issues: a proposal to compel power plants to install expensive "best available" pollution controls when doing routine upgrades; and a proposal to implement more stringent controls over industrial emissions of carbon, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.

Controls over carbon emissions are viewed as a backdoor way to implement otherwise unauthorized efforts to combat global warming. Whitman also has paid a price for the Bush administration's opposition to signing the international global warming treaty.

The "right" decisions might further dissuade the greens from playing the "environment card" against Whitman in next year's Senate race.

When it comes to running the EPA, Christie Todd Whitman's decision calculus sadly seems to be, "It's all about me."

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).