WASHINGTON — After a five-day delay caused by Hurricane Isabel slamming into Washington last week, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt finally faces his confirmation hearing today to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As he spent Monday in Washington preparing and making more courtesy calls to members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he found some surprising help from a former liberal, pro-environment Democratic governor — and some serious opposition forming from environmental groups.
The support came from former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat who now is president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, which advocates alternatives to urban sprawl. He wrote a weekend opinion column in the Washington Post praising Leavitt's work in that area and his nomination.
"In our respective stints as National Governors Association chairman, Leavitt and I collaborated on an effort to raise the profile of growth issues while developing tools states can use to tame sprawl and build healthy cities and towns," Glendening wrote.
He especially praised Leavitt's work with Envision Utah. He said that group became a national model for public-private planning as it listened to thousands of people and crafted innovative ways "to shape future land use, transportation and open-space preservation."
Glendening concluded, "As senators debate Leavitt's confirmation as EPA chief, they would do well to recognize his bipartisan leadership in bringing issues of growth and quality of life to the fore."
The friendly words of a former Democratic governor might help with the committee, which has four former governors, a daughter of a current governor, and the spouse of another former governor.
The former governors on that committee include Sens. Thomas Carper, D-Del. (who was chairman of the NGA when Leavitt was its vice chairman); Bob Graham, D-Fla.; George Voinovich, R-Ohio; and Christopher Bond, R-Mo.
Also, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is the wife of former President Bill Clinton, who was also governor of Arkansas and worked with Leavitt. And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is the daughter of Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Meanwhile, another squall was forming against Leavitt. Environmental activists from Utah, plus some national groups, have scheduled a Capitol Hill press conference during the lunch break of Leavitt's hearing to criticize his environmental record in Utah.
Among those scheduled to speak are Zach Frankel, executive director, Utah Rivers Council; Larry Young, executive director, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance; Jason Groenewold, executive director, Families Against Incinerator Risks; Lawson LeGate, senior southwestern representative, Sierra Club; and Gary Harris, a whistle-blower with expertise on Utah's permitting of an Army hazardous-waste incinerator.
Such groups last week issued a "white paper" that details what they say is Leavitt's "anti-environmental record." Among complaints they listed were:
Utah currently ranks second in the nation for the total amount of toxins released into the environment each year, and Salt Lake County ranks first among all counties, according to the latest Toxic Release Inventory compiled by the EPA.
Utah tied for last place in its enforcement of the Clean Water Act, according to a February 2003 EPA report.
Leavitt virtually ignored the largest toxic-air polluter in the country, U.S. Magnesium, formerly MagCorp.
Utah is now facing what could become one of the world's largest groundwater contamination cleanup projects with Kennecott Copper.
Leavitt struck back-room deals with the Bush administration to open up millions of acres of lands previously protected as potential wilderness.
Besides such complaints, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has attacked Leavitt for refusing to answer before his hearing — under directions from the White House — a written list of questions sent by committee Democrats.
The White House said no EPA nominee has ever been asked to answer such questions before a hearing, and it did not want to set a precedent. But Lieberman said other Cabinet-level nominees who appear before other committees have been asked such questions, and answered them.
Leavitt also has "holds" on his nomination — making debate before the full Senate difficult — placed by Clinton and Lieberman, who want more detailed explanations why the White House failed to spread word that the EPA found that dust after the 9/11 attacks in New York was toxic.
Also, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., another presidential candidate, has put a hold on the nomination, saying he first wants a study into the effects of what he says have been actions by the Bush administration to weaken the Clean Air Act.