President Bush yesterday chose scientist Stephen L. Johnson to head the Environmental Protection Agency, breaking a tradition of largely having lawyers or politicians lead the agency since its creation in 1970.
Mr. Johnson will lead an agency at which he has worked for 24 years. He has been serving as EPA’s acting administrator since January, when Mr. Bush moved Michael O. Leavitt to become secretary of health and human services.
“Steve Johnson is a talented scientist and skilled manager with a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship,” Mr. Bush said at the White House announcement.
The president noted that Mr. Johnson, if confirmed by the Senate, will be the “first professional scientist” to lead the agency.
“Steve shares my conviction that we can improve the Earth while maintaining a vibrant and competitive economy,” Mr. Bush said, noting that Mr. Johnson “will work cooperatively with leaders in government, industry and environmental advocacy to continue using our resources wisely.”
Mr. Johnson praised the president for leading “great strides in environmental protection,” a view not shared by some leaders of environmental organizations.
Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director, called Mr. Johnson “the best we could expect as a nominee from the Bush administration.”
“The real challenge for Mr. Johnson will be dealing with the White House’s agenda to weaken clean air and clean water protections and ignore global warming,” Mr. Pope said.
At the League of Conservation Voters, President Deb Callahan said she hopes the selection of a scientist “signals an awareness by the Bush administration that science does matter in environmental policy-making.”
“However, given this administration’s record of suppressing science, it will be interesting to see how a scientist is told to do his job,” Miss Callahan said.
Republican congressional leaders, meanwhile, praised the nomination.
Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican, chairman of a science subcommittee, welcomed the nomination of a scientist to head the agency. Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he looked forward to discussing issues with Mr. Johnson.
The selection also was praised by Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent who is the ranking non-Republican on Mr. Inhofe’s committee. Mr. Jeffords called Mr. Johnson “a solid choice to lead the agency at this time.”
“The Bush administration has the worst environmental record in history,” Mr. Jeffords said, “and I am hopeful that given Steve’s background and experience he can bring a fresh and new approach to the administration.”
Prior to joining EPA, Mr. Johnson worked for Hazelton Laboratories Corp. and Litton Bionetics Inc. He is a Washington native and holds an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in pathology.
He takes the EPA helm at a time when several key decisions are pending, including possible action this month on clean air rules concerning toxic mercury emissions and soot and smog pollution.