EPA'S TOP COPS RESIGN
Enforcement division head, top two air pollution attorneys leave EPA
Last week, John P. Suarez, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance, resigned to take a job with Wal-Mart.
Suarez's stay at EPA was short but eventful. Confirmed by the Senate in August 2002, Suarez arrived with former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, with whom he had worked when she was New Jersey governor. A former head of the New Jersey State Division of Gaming Enforcement, Suarez had no experience in environmental enforcement.
At EPA, he oversaw the dismantling of its new source review (NSR) enforcement initiative that was a decade in planning and directed toward some of the U.S.'s largest air polluters: coal-fired power plants, refineries, and wood-processing industries.
Despite winning key cases and negotiating several settlements, last year the Bush Administration rewrote NSR regulations, and Suarez announced the end of the enforcement initiative (C&EN, Nov. 17, 2003, page 46).
In the weeks before Suarez left, two EPA career enforcement officials also bolted: Bruce C. Buckheit, head of the enforcement office's air division, with 15 years of federal prosecutorial experience, and Richard Biondi, enforcement office associate director, with 30 years at EPA. They join two other top enforcement officials who left over the past year, blaming the Administration's reluctance to enforce environmental laws.
Buckheit says his departure was in large part due to the Administration's NSR decision. "We were able to put together packages where companies reduced their emissions without sabotaging their businesses," he says. "We were cruising along, and then the White House entered and it all came to a grinding halt."
Suarez, however, has a very different view of his time at the agency. In his resignation letter, he told President George W. Bush of his success in providing compliance assistance to industry. And in his annual enforcement report, Suarez highlighted the amount of pollution treated or reduced, not the number of enforcement actions taken, which is the traditional benchmark.
Looking at EPA enforcement penalties and actions, the Bush Administration is far below previous administrations, says Sylvia K. Lowrance, an EPA enforcement career employee who retired last year after 24 years with the agency. She was deputy assistant administrator for enforcement.
"This Administration has pulled cases and put investigations on ice," Lowrance says. "They sent every signal they can to staff to back off. When you stop enforcing, there are implications to the entire compliance system. If no one believes EPA is going to enforce, overall compliance rates go down. The saddest thing is not these individual instances of nonenforcement, but what has happened to the reputation of the program itself.
"I fear that with lax EPA enforcement, corporate leaders are not going to spend scarce resources to expand compliance programs."