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RUCKELSHAUS: KNOCKED OUT BY ENVIRONMENTAL FATIGUE
When William Ruckelshaus resigned last week as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he said he was leaving for "a whole lot of personal things." That's understandable. Ruckelshaus has two college-age children, and the salary that an executive of his ability can earn in the private sector will make it easier to pay tuition bills; he was earning an estimated $300,000 a year as senior vice-president of the Weyerhaeuser Corporation before President Reagan drafted him for the $69,800 EPA post. Moreover, Ruckelshaus has admitted that it was "not pleasant" working for an administration that had earlier dropped his wife, Jill, from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
However, it seems certain that political factors were also involved in his resignation. Nathaniel P. Reed, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks during the Nixon and Ford administrations, who was among those who met with Ruckelshaus the day he quit, says, "He had an increasing alienation from an administration that doesn't give a——about the environment. In his long discussion with us, he never said he was pushed out [but] everything was a fight for him. We had fights in the Nixon Administration, but nothing like this. Ruckelshaus had put EPA back in fighting form, now what could he do? He couldn't put up with the broken promises, the budget cuts. He couldn't put up with all the fighting. That's not Bill's style. He had significant dreams of a different kind of administration."
Ruckelshaus learned the hard way that his dreams would not come true. He had been the EPA's first chief, from 1970 to '73, but when he returned to the agency in the spring of '83, it was in shambles. His predecessor, Anne Burford, had resigned under pressure when she and some of her aides were accused of favoring industry's interests and ignoring environmental law. Morale among EPA employees was at rock bottom.
Ruckelshaus, who had earned a reputation as a conscientious administrator during his first tour at EPA, improved things immediately. He honed the agency's analytical skills so that EPA could better assess the cost-benefit aspect of environmental disputes. He saw to it that the enforcement department got back to work. He recruited able workers of the sort who had been turned out or turned off by the Burford regime. He stressed the importance of toxic-waste cleanup and helped strengthen the recently reauthorized Resources Conservation and Recovery Act. Above all, he gave back to the agency its sense of purpose. "Employee morale and confidence is high," he said last week. "The ship called EPA has righted and is steering a steady course."
That's true enough, although Ruckelshaus knows that EPA continues to sail a very stormy sea. Legislation affecting the agency's most important activities—the Clean Air and Water Acts, various pesticide-control laws, bills to fund specific toxic-waste cleanup, the Safe Drinking Water Act, amendments to curb acid rain—has either not been reauthorized or has not been acted upon since Reagan took office. Of the last item, a Ruckelshaus associate said last week, "If there was one thing that rankled, it was the acid-rain decision."
In late 1983, Ruckelshaus was on the verge of suggesting a limited sulphur-dioxide-emissions cutback in the industrial Midwest. But that $1.5 to $2.5 billion effort was never launched, and by January 1984, Ruckelshaus was lamely defending the Administration's old and largely discredited line that more research on acid rain was needed before any action could be taken to combat it. He had to sit by as six Eastern states sued on March 20 for acid-rain relief; as 10 nations, not including the U.S., signed a pact on March 21 to cut sulphur emissions; as an April assessment issued by the Environmental Defense Fund said the current levels of acid rain could irreversibly damage the environment; as a midsummer report by government scientists said that sulphur emissions can be linked to acid rain; as his own agency said on Aug. 29 that tenets of the Clean Air Act could not be applied to acid rain; and, finally, as David Stockman's Office of Management and Budget was allowed in October to edit an EPA report entitled Environmental Progress and Challenges. OMB deleted EPA's final word on acid rain, an emphatic indictment of the U.S. Government's laissez-faire attitude toward the problem: "...the National Academy of Sciences reported that acid deposition is a threat to human welfare because of its potential impact on materials, forests and farm productivity, aquatic ecosystems and drinking water systems." Hugh Kaufman, a career employee at EPA, said at the time, "The constraints imposed by the White House and the OMB make it impossible for EPA to do the minimal things this [report] calls for." Reed is more succinct: "OMB defeated him, hands-down."
Government sources say OMB is to have another go at EPA in next year's round of budget cutting and imply that this too contributed to Ruckelshaus's decision to resign. But if the prospect of more cuts was the final straw, it was the last of many. Two months ago the word in Washington was that Ruckelshaus was leaving after the election. He joked at the time, "I haven't even been able to convince my mother that I was sane in coming back and doing this." His friends found pathos in his humor; his dream of a different kind of administration was over.
"He had nobody in the White House to back him," says Reed. Bill Drayton, former assistant administrator for planning and management at EPA, says, "He was an outsider ignored on key budget, acid-rain and biogenetics-regulation issues." That is the telling point. As the accolades fall upon the departing Ruckelshaus—as he's praised for his good work and even more loudly for his good intentions—it should be remembered that he was the outsider. His way of thinking was not aligned with that of the White House. William K. Reilly, president of The Conservation Foundation, puts it gently: "This Administration is, by and large, not for things environmental." Ruckelshaus, by and large, was.
And so he's gone. His successor will be Lee M. Thomas, Ruckelshaus's own nominee and, until now, his deputy in charge of toxic-waste programs. According to Reed, Thomas is "a careful, precise, good administrator."