Indoor Pollution

Confirmation hearings are pending for Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, the nominee to replace Christie Whitman at the troubled Environmental Protection Agency. Leavitt surprised many in mid-August when he accepted the nomination, as he'd been offered the post just two months earlier and had turned it down because he was still undecided about seeking a fourth gubernatorial term. When the nomination was announced, it was praised, as they say, on both sides of the aisle.

But lately, Leavitt has become a symbol of boiling Democratic discontent in the Senate. His hearings are being held up by a group of lawmakers fed up with the deceit of the Bush administration, and with the morass that is the EPA.

Leading the charge are Hillary Rodham Clinton and three other Senate Democrats and presidential candidates: John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry. Clinton's concern has nothing to do with Leavitt himself but with the question of whether the White House and the EPA covered up the extent of the air pollution in lower Manhattan after September 11. After requesting more information from an EPA inspector general's report in August, Clinton's office received new details of heated infighting between the White House and the EPA over the health threat posed by World Trade Center rubble. Documents distributed to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee depict intense arguments between some White House and EPA staffers, in which members of the White House Council on Environmental Quality insist on minimizing the threat and extent of the pollution.

To back up their charges, the four Democratic senators, along with colleague Jim Jeffords, have placed a hold on Leavitt's nomination to prevent a full Senate vote. At press time, another Democratic Senator, Harry Reid of Nevada, had pulled his hold on Leavitt, but the other five were standing fast.

Leavitt is likely to win confirmation from the full Senate eventually. But he'll be inheriting an organization where politics has a habit of overpowering science. In early October, Jeffrey Holmstead, head of the EPA's Air and Radiation Office, was accused of lying during sworn testimony to Congress regarding the impact of softened air-quality standards on various clean-air lawsuits against utility companies that were filed during Bill Clinton's administration. Holmstead insisted -- surprise, surprise -- that the new rules would do no damage to the government's case. Two senior members of the EPA's enforcement office specifically advised him otherwise, and both have since left the EPA. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is currently gathering evidence to investigate whether Holmstead perjured himself during his testimony. Looks as if Leavitt, assuming he does get the job, had better be monitoring indoor pollution as well as the other kind.

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