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The resignation of a top Environmental Protection Agency enforcement official who complained about White House interference in pursuing violations at power plants is prompting Senate hearings into the Bush administration’s environmental record. Eric Schaeffer, the EPA’s director of civil enforcement, resigned after a dozen years at the agency, complaining that the White House “seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce.” Schaeffer, in a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, said that the message being sent by the Bush administration has prompted utilities accused of clean air violations “to walk away from the table” and refuse to negotiate settlements. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called the resignation, which surfaced Thursday, “a disheartening development” and “direct confirmation … that this administration is not fulfilling its responsibilities to enforce critical environmental laws.” He said his Governmental Affairs Committee will begin a series of hearings this week “on the administration’s troubling environmental record.” EPA spokesman Joe Martyak on Thursday disputed many of the assertions made by Schaeffer, a career civil servant, and said the agency “remains committed to enforcement (of air pollution laws)… in a major way.” Martyak said Whitman had seen Schaeffer’s letter but would have no direct comment. Reached at his home Thursday, Schaeffer said the problems he outlined in his resignation letter “reflect the views of just about all the civil servants working in enforcement” at the EPA. “This is the kind of thing you can’t say when you’re in government, and it is something I really feel needs to be said,” added Schaeffer, a lawyer who began working at the EPA in 1992 during the first Bush administration and prior to that had been a staffer in Congress. Only last August, Schaeffer received an award from Attorney General John Ashcroft for exemplary public service because of his work in getting settlements involving pollution violations at a number of refineries. In his letter to Whitman, the enforcement chief strongly criticized a White House proposed overhaul of a regulation that requires power plants, as well as refineries and industrial sources, to install new pollution controls when they make significant improvements or expansions that result in additional chemical releases. During the Clinton administration, the EPA had aggressively begun to use those rules in a series of enforcement actions against a dozen electric utilities, mainly those using older, much dirtier coal-fired plants. Four of the utilities already had agreed to make improvements that would have led to a cut of about 1 million tons of pollution, and the lawsuits involving the others was expected to cut another 4.8 million tons, maintains Schaeffer. “Fifteen months ago it looked as though our lawsuits were going to shrink these dismal (pollution) statistics, … yet today, we seem about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” he wrote Whitman. Schaeffer said that two of the companies that had tentatively agreed on a settlement have refused to sign a final agreement, “hedging their bets” that the rules now will be weakened. “Other companies with whom we were close to settlement have walked away from the table,” he wrote. “We are … fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce,” Schaeffer complained. He said the changes being considered by the White House would open “loopholes that would allow (older) plants to be continually rebuilt and emissions to increase without modern pollution controls.” Martyak, the EPA spokesman, said the proposed changes criticized by Schaeffer are still under review. As to the lawsuits and negotiations with the power companies, he said: “We are still pursuing those settlement discussions.” But environmentalists said Schaeffer is only bringing to the open what they had suspected all along. “What’s it going to take for this administration to crack down on polluters? If this doesn’t shake them up, what will?” asked John Coequyt, an official of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group. The resignation “confirms our fears that the Bush administration is preventing the nation’s environmental cop from policing his beat,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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