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EPA Nominee Hammered Over CHEERS Project

April 7, 2005 ny times Nominee Is Grilled Over Program on Pesticides

By MICHAEL JANOFSKY WASHINGTON, April 6 - Stephen L. Johnson, President Bush's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, encountered unexpected turbulence at his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday as Senator Barbara Boxer of California threatened to hold up his nomination over a small but controversial pesticide program in Florida.

Appearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Mr. Johnson, a 24-year veteran of the agency who has been acting administrator since his predecessor, Michael O. Leavitt, became secretary of health and human services, was greeted warmly by Republicans and faced predictably pointed questions from Democrats over recent agency initiatives, including emission control rules put into place last month.

Ms. Boxer's objections were based on a little-known research program near Jacksonville, Fla., sponsored by the agency and the American Chemistry Council, that offered money to low-income families willing to allow the agency to measure the effects of pesticides on their children under one year of age. The project, called Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study, or Cheers, was suspended last year after negative public reaction that prompted the agency to call in outside experts to assess its feasibility.

The program was limited to families in Duval County that routinely used pesticides inside their homes. It offered parents $970 over two years if they made sure their young children went about their usual activities as the use of pesticides continued. Researchers would then visit the home every three to six months to collect data.

In a letter that reached Ms. Boxer several hours after she raised her concerns, Mr. Johnson said, "No additional work will be conducted on this study subject to the outcome of external scientific and ethical review."

But that was well short of her demands. Calling the program "appalling, unethical and immoral," Ms. Boxer implored Mr. Johnson "to pull the plug on this program tomorrow." In an interview later, she said she would do whatever she could to hold up Mr. Johnson's confirmation so long as the program had any chance of being revived.

"Until it's canceled, I will do anything I can to stop this nomination," she said. "This program is the worst kind of thing; it's environmental injustice where children are the victims."

Mr. Johnson, 54, is the first career employee at the agency with a formal scientific background to be nominated to lead it. Trained as a biologist and pathologist, he led the agency's pesticide and toxic substances office before rising to several senior positions under Mr. Leavitt and his predecessor, Christie Whitman.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Johnson assured committee members that under his leadership, decisions would be made on "the best available scientific information" and that they would be made through a process "as open and transparent" as possible.

But fielding questions from other Democrats and Senator James M. Jeffords, Independent of Vermont, who warned Mr. Johnson against becoming "a rubber stamp for White House policies," Mr. Johnson made it clear that he would strongly support preferences of the administration. That became especially evident in an exchange with Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, who pressed Mr. Johnson to explain why the agency provided the committee with detailed analyses of the administration's pollution-reduction bill, known as Clear Skies, but not two competing bills. The measure has stalled in the last two sessions of
Congress.

Mr. Johnson said the agency had more pressing matters to address, but he vowed to do whatever he could to help the committee pass effective antipollution legislation so long as it was built on Clear Skies.

"I appreciate the work the committee has already done on this issue," he said, "and I look forward to working with you to advance this important legislative initiative."

Responding to friendly questions from Senator George V. Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, Mr. Johnson returned to the theme of sound science as the overarching imperative for all agency decisions. But Mr. Jeffords threw the concept back to him, asking Mr. Johnson why the agency chose a cap-and-trade program for its recently announced mercury rules for power plant emissions, rather than a program that demanded the use of best available technologies.

Mr. Johnson's answer reflected his willingness to balance economic considerations with new environmental regulations. He said that new guidelines for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions were also helping to reduce mercury emissions and that forcing plant operators to do more would prove too expensive.

"It's a much more cost-effective approach," he said of the cap-and-trade program.

As he left the hearing room, Mr. Johnson smiled when asked about Ms. Boxer's concerns and said, "Today was a pleasure being before the senators, and I'm looking forward to swift confirmation so I can run the E.P.A. on a full-time basis."