06/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stephen Johnson's Tragic Legacy

While it may not have garnered as many front page headlines as its terrible record on the Iraq war and civil liberties, the Bush administration's record on the environment has been -- to no one's surprise -- abysmal. The president's string of Orwellian-sounding legislation, including the infamous Healthy Skies and Clear Skies Initiatives, did more to weaken environmental standards and sell out the country's natural resources than any industry lobbyist could've hoped for. I could go on, of course, but I only have so much column space -- and you have other things to attend to.

One great tragedy of the president's environmental legacy (or, if you prefer, lack thereof) has been the sidelining of career scientists and, in some cases, the willingness of others to prostrate themselves to his every whim in order to ram through his brazen agenda. No official has been the brunt of as much disdain or disappointment than EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.

stephen l. johnsonJohnson, who succeeded Michael O. Leavitt (himself no favorite of environmentalists) in early 2005, was once considered a "spectacularly good appointment" and "the best we could expect," by several prominent environmental groups. Scientists were excited to finally see one of their own, a toxicologist, ascend to the top position after being managed by partisan-minded bureaucrats. Needless to say, the honeymoon didn't last long.

A recent Nature editorial excoriated him for protecting the administration's business interests more than the environment "with reckless disregard for law, science or the agency's own rules -- or, it seems, the anguished protests of his own subordinates." Much of it criticizes him over his recent attempts to block California's efforts to enact stricter vehicle emissions guidelines. Deriding his argument that approving the waiver would lead to a "confusing patchwork of state rules," the editorial slams him for extensively quoting from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade association that stood to gain from its dismissal, and for blatantly disregarding his staff's advice, which had strongly urged him to sign it.

After criticizing Johnson in a post I wrote last year for approving the use of a pesticide, I was rebuked by one of my readers, who had previously worked with him, for being excessively critical (not without reason) and unfair. As many of his defenders will argue, he is first and foremost a presidential appointee, and thus subject to George W. Bush's will. Having initially been willing to give him some benefit of the doubt, I've now come to agree with the views of many that the best thing he could do is resign -- "in favour of someone who could at least feign an interest in the environment," as the Nature editorial suggests.

But don't just take it from me and his critics in the media / scientific community: As was reported by Christopher Lee in The Washington Post, 19 union leaders, representing 10,000 agency employees, sent a letter to Johnson in late February accusing him and other top officials of ignoring the advice of their workers and the EPA's principles of scientific integrity -- citing officials' inaction on a range of issues, including mercury emissions from power plants and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Another survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists in late April found that 1,586 out of the EPA's 5,400 staff scientists (or nearly two-thirds) had experienced political interference with their work.

Jerald L. Schnoor, editor of Environmental Science & Technology, had perhaps one of the most incisive analyses of Johnson's record and that of the EPA, as a whole. He calls the agency a "friend in crisis" and "in danger of irrelevancy and of losing its credibility on the environment." Citing the results of the UCS's survey, he lambastes the EPA's brass for interfering with its staff's work and for demoralizing the agency:

"These are dedicated professionals, many of whom joined EPA (idealistically) to protect the environment. They deserve better, and so does the nation."

He goes on to provide some historical context for the EPA's current crisis:

"The agency has experienced dark days before in its 38-year history, and I suppose it will again. Remember the 1981 appointment of Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA administrator under former president Ronald Reagan, who was tasked with (essentially) dismantling EPA, drastically reducing its budget, and morphing it into the Industrial Protection Agency? EPA was in crisis, with mass resignations over a conflict of interest involving the Superfund program. Burford was found in contempt of Congress and resigned in 1983.

I will never forget the day, after Burford resigned, that William Ruckelshaus, like the Lone Ranger riding to the rescue, spoke to an all-hands meeting at EPA headquarters in Waterside Mall. He had agreed to take over as interim administrator. The energy and enthusiasm among the staff were palpable and contagious. The agency was back."

Regardless of your political biases, I think we can all agree that we need agencies like the EPA to remain fully independent and only be staffed with the most dedicated, qualified individuals. Issues of global significance like climate change are too portentous to allow for political interference. Let's hope the next administration helps return the agency to relevancy and refocus it on its original mission: to protect human health and the environment.