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LEAVITT FEELING OPTIMISTIC AFTER EPA MEETING

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In a private, hourlong meeting with Western governors Sunday evening, EPA administrator Carol Browner listened to their concerns and promised a fair hearing.

Utah is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over mandated standards for ground-level ozone pollution. Gov. Mike Leavitt said following the meeting with Browner - where general, not specific problems were discussed - that at this point he's reasonably optimistic about settling that lawsuit and achieving the air standards his own way.If not, then as the newly elected chairman of the Western Governors Association, Leavitt is prepared to work with other governors and their congressional delegations to draft needed amendments to federal EPA law to allow the states enough flexibility to meet EPA standards their way.

"I'm told the Justice Department doesn't want to continue" the lawsuit, said Leavitt. There have been several meetings with regional EPA officials and members of Leavitt's administration. "They went well," said Leavitt.

"I brought up two concerns" with Browner, he said. "First, we have to have more flexibility in meeting EPA standards." Leavitt said he doesn't mind if EPA sets compliance timetables, doesn't mind if it sets air- or water-quality standards. "But we, the states, each have to be able to decide how to meet those standards, the best method for us."

Leavitt said he'll use the collective power of the WGA and any other means to agree with EPA officials about that flexibility. And at this point, Leavitt said EPA leaders aren't necessarily against that: In fact, they seem willing to put together a working group to seek amendments to federal law to allow such flexibility. "Some of the most frustrated people I've found are regional EPA administrators," said Leavitt. They, too, are hamstrung by rigid law.

Secondly, Leavitt talked to Browner about the liability of the state moving the toxic Sharon Steel tailings. EPA has been somewhat reasonable about a possible move.

But Leavitt worries if the state takes primary responsibility for the move that at some future time the state not be held liable. "If (the moving of the thousands of tons of old steel tailings) is done properly - in a plan that is agreed upon by the (federal government), then I don't want any (state) liability after the move."

Leavitt said he's found Browner's attitude in helping Western states "refreshing." He's also found Bill Yellowtail, the regional EPA administrator, to be sympathetic. "I'm seeing some signs, for the first time, that (EPA) is talking about being flexible and having a partnership with us" in solving Utah's environmental problems. "I hope for good things to come."

Browner said Monday morning that NAFTA brings important environmental concerns between the U.S., Canada and Mexico into focus. "We agreed to work together to prevent pollution, not wait to clean it up," she said.

Thus, the EPA must be proactive in its approach. "We agreed in NAFTA to crack down on polluters. And we agreed to reduce the incentive for companies to cross the border in an attempt to escape environmental rules."

Mexico's NAFTA representative to the United States, Luis de la Calle, promised that his country would live up to the NAFTA agreements as well.

At a Monday morning meeting, Assistant Interior Secretary George Frampton told Leavitt that Interior wants to work with local officials on endangered species. He said a new partnership must be started, one based on trust.

Leavitt said after the meeting, "Trust comes with equal partners - it doesn't come in a master-servant relationship. In a master-servant relationship, the master holds all the cards. It is one way. And so far, the federal government has been the master."

The discussion among the governors and federal officials got lively at points, with one governor suggesting that instead of term limits for elected officials, there should be term limits for federal bureaucrats. Frampton said broad outlines on endangered species need to come from Washington, with a backup federal policy should the states not keep their part of the bargain in protecting endangered species.