The Scientific Activist

A week after a major report found widespread Bush Administration political interference with science in the EPA, the Chicago Tribune reported late this week that the Administration has forced the resignation of Mary Gade, head of the EPA’s Midwest office:

SAGINAW, Mich. – The battle over dioxin contamination in this economically stressed region had been raging for years when a top Bush administration official turned up the pressure on Dow Chemical to clean it up.

On Thursday, following months of internal bickering over Mary Gade’s interactions with Dow, the administration forced her to quit as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Midwest office, based in Chicago.

Gade told the Tribune she resigned after two aides to national EPA administrator Stephen Johnson took away her powers as regional administrator and told her to quit or be fired by June 1.

Gade has been locked in a heated dispute with Dow about long-delayed plans to clean up dioxin-saturated soil and sediment that extends 50 miles beyond its Midland, Mich., plant into Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. The company dumped the highly toxic and persistent chemical into local rivers for most of the last century.

Many local residents see Dow as a lifeline in region plagued by plant closings and layoffs. But all along the two wide streams that cut through this old industrial town, signs warn people to keep off dioxin-contaminated riverbanks and to avoid eating fish pulled from the fast-moving waters. Officials have taken the swings down in one riverside park to discourage kids from playing there. Men in rubber boots and thick gloves occasionally knock on doors, asking residents whether they can dig up a little soil in the yard.

Gade, appointed by President Bush as regional EPA administrator in September 2006, invoked emergency powers last summer to order the company to remove three hotspots of dioxin near its Midland headquarters.

She demanded more dredging in November, when it was revealed that dioxin levels along a park in Saginaw were 1.6 million parts per trillion, the highest amount ever found in the U.S.

Dow then sought to cut a deal on a more comprehensive cleanup. But Gade ended the negotiations in January, saying Dow was refusing to take action necessary to protect public health and wildlife. Dow responded by appealing to officials in Washington, according to heavily redacted letters the Tribune obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Regional EPA administrators typically have wide latitude to enforce environmental laws, but in April Gade drew fire from officials in Washington after she sent contractors to test soil in a Saginaw neighborhood where Dow had found high dioxin levels. The levels in one Saginaw yard were nearly six times higher than the federal cleanup standard, and 65 times higher than what Michigan considers acceptable.

So, Gade was fired for just trying to do her job: protect people. The irony here, though, is that Gade was no environmental activist. Quite the opposite, in fact, as indicated later in the the article quoted above:

At the center of the latest dispute was Gade, who as a corporate attorney had represented big companies like Dow against environmental regulators. Her aggressive action against Dow surprised the company, local activists and her Washington bosses. But she still won high marks from EPA officials during her last performance evaluation.

The steps Gade took were influenced in part by her experience as an EPA staffer during the early 1980s, when the agency’s top official in Washington was forced to resign after he allowed Dow to censor an EPA study documenting dioxin’s dangers.

And, in an accompanying article:

Gade, a former corporate attorney and state regulator appointed by President Bush in September 2006, became the latest EPA official to become ensnared in a long-standing dispute with Dow Chemical, which long ago acknowledged it is responsible for dioxin contamination near its Michigan headquarters but has resisted federal and state involvement in cleanup plans.

During the 1990s, Gade led the Illinois EPA under Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who said he knew her as a team player who worked diligently to broker agreements between business interests and environmental groups.

“She is very committed to the environment, but she’s not a fanatic,” Edgar said. “She was never a Lone Ranger type.”

As head of the federal EPA office in Chicago, Gade won praise from environmental groups that often are at odds with the agency.

So, not only was Gade and effective administrator, who was known for being a consensus-builder, but she was also originally a corporate attorney–once representing the same polluters she was now trying to bring into line. Despite her background, clearly she knew that effectively performing her job meant taking on some of these polluters for the cause of public health. The actions of the Bush Administration (particularly EPA administrator Stephen Johnson) and Dow Chemical are unconscionable and are putting the health of a very large number of people at risk. Hopefully they don’t think they can sweep this under the rug just by getting rid of one pesky administrator.

Comments

  1. #1 Lynn
    May 21, 2008

    Interesting ~ Thanks for posting. It will be interesting to see if things change with a new administration.

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