Cabinet on Waste, The

A look at what three politicians' past could mean for the waste industry's future.

George W. Bush's hard-fought victory as president of the United States underscored the need for bipartisan cooperation. Consequently, he chose at least three top advisors with a history of consensus building to help him navigate the scope of topics that he must oversee.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta come from vastly different backgrounds. Yet all have a propensity to cross party lines while molding the nation's solid waste-related policy.

With such hot-button issues as truck drivers' hours of service, diesel emissions requirements, landfill gas tax credits and possible Superfund revisions currently on the legislative table, understanding these advisors' careers and past decisions is more important than ever for waste industry professionals.

Christine Todd Whitman

Characteristic of a Republican administration, Christine Todd Whitman, new head of the EPA, is expected to be much more sympathetic to business interests than was her predecessor.

“We will look for ways to work with agriculture and business to find out how we can reach our shared goals of a clean environment in ways that will allow them to continue to supply us with what we need to enjoy our quality of life,” Whitman told EPA employees on Feb. 5, 2001.

Bush obviously chose Whitman because her approach to environmental protection mirrors his. “We share a philosophy that moves beyond the old central command-and-control mindset that believes Washington has all the answers to environmental issues,” he told the press after selecting Whitman for the EPA position.

The long-time Republican understands being on the receiving end of mandates from Washington, as well as on the issuing end, as Whitman's record as governor of New Jersey proves. For example, in response to public safety concerns, she banned large commercial trucks from using local roads except in cases where express business re- quires such travel.

Nevertheless, Whitman's inclination to relinquish regulatory and financial control is stronger than her inclination to seize it. In her 1993 gubernatorial victory over democratic incumbent Jim Florio, Whitman promised an across-the-board income tax cut. She delivered on the cut a year ahead of schedule.

She also pared-down what National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) Northeast Regional Manager Steve Changaris calls “a culture of environmental regulation” in New Jersey.

Before Whitman took office, New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Trenton, N.J., was a fee-driven agency, Changaris says. “The way [the system] was set-up, the more fines the agency charged, the more money it could keep. In theory it worked great. But in practicality, it was an Orwellian nightmare.”

In one instance, a garbage truck tipped over, spilling diesel and other substances, Changaris recalls. Despite the fact that the garbage company brought the spill to the DEP's attention and paid cleanup costs, the company was fined an additional $6,700.

Whitman revamped New Jersey's DEP, bringing the department “on-budget” through a system of set annual appropriations, Changaris says. She also cut more than 1,000 jobs, yet reassigned hundreds of laid-off workers to other positions.

Intent on streamlining DEP reporting procedures, Whitman cut the list of chemicals that facilities were required to track. But she did this with the stakeholders — including environmentalists — at the table, Changaris adds.

These efforts to ease the burden of envi- ronmental regulations could spell big changes at the EPA, an agency whose sole pur- pose is setting and imposing environmental rules. Already, President Bush has cut the EPA's budget by $499 million. Yet Whitman attests the agency's core activities will not be affected. [See “Whitman Sampler,” on page 34.]

However, some say Whitman's desire to please all parties results in unnecessary compromises and keeps her from taking decisive action.

“My feeling is that she rides the middle,” says John Carlton, executive director of the Warren County Pollution Control Financing Authority in New Jersey.

“[Whitman is] adept at managing her way through. While [private waste industry professionals] want more, she has maintained some semblance of control and given us a little bit of breathing room.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed flow control in its 1994 Town of Clarkston v. C.A. Carbone decision, Whitman failed to implement a clear plan to deal with the repercussions in New Jersey, Carlton says.

County solid waste authorities in the state had spent $1.6 billion in bonded indebtedness to build landfills and materials recovery facilities (MRFs), based on the assurance — under flow control — that local haulers would be required to bring garbage to local facilities. But the Supreme Court said flow control violated the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, and New Jersey counties were left with a huge debt and no way to pay it.

Although Whitman promised not to allow bond default, she did little to find a long-term solution, Carlton says. “She has tried to give counties the tools to solve their problem, but for some counties, the debt is too burdensome,” he says. “She should have focused more on finding a resolution.”

Changaris, who never liked flow control, says Whitman didn't go far enough to eradicate the system. She worked to carry out the Supreme Court's decision, but simultaneously testified in favor of legislative solutions to the debt problem. Now, New Jersey has a “bizarre-looking” solid waste management system wherein some counties are completely open to interstate waste and some are only partially open, he says.

“Whitman wasn't willing to address the issue head-on and show some leadership,” Changaris adds.

But Whitman insists her balanced leadership style has served New Jersey well. In a speech before the U.S. Senate on the eve of her confirmation as EPA Administrator, Whitman listed her environmental accomplishments: a significant drop in the state's ground-level ozone; a drop in greenhouse gas emissions to near 1990 levels; a drop in annual beach closings from 800 in 1988 to 11 in 2000; a $15 million grant to help towns clean up contaminated sites; and incentives for companies that voluntarily clean up these sites.

“New Jersey is succeeding,” she told Congress. “Our water and air are cleaner, and our land better protected than it was seven years ago.”

Similar to President Bush, Whitman comes from a wealthy, politically active family. Her father served twice as New Jersey's Republican chairman, and her mother was vice chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Additionally, her husband's grandfather served as governor of New York in 1914 and 1916.

Growing up on an estate in New Jersey's horse country, Whitman attended her first Republican National Convention at the age of nine. In the 1980s, Whitman served five years on the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders and was appointed president of the Board of Public Utilities in 1988. In 1990, she ran against the popular Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, nearly unseating him to the surprise of political pundits.

Some say Whitman's narrow 1993 victory over Governor Jim Florio — who has working-class roots — was testament to the fact that tax cuts trump class warfare.

Whitman is fiscally conservative, yet sensitive to issues of class and race. “On cultural issues, Whitman is liberal,” says the “Almanac of American Politics 2000.”

In her first weeks as EPA administrator, Whitman moved to drop the agency's legal battle against a black employee who won $300,000 in a discrimination lawsuit.

Many think Whitman's liberal views conflict with her conservatism. But she characterizes her style as “cooperation,” telling Congress, “only by including all Americans can we meet the challenges we face.”

“Abraham has tried to ease government's burden on businesses, sponsoring a law to make Brownfields cleanup expenses more quickly deductible. This is significant because as top advisor, Abraham could influence President Bush on new Brownfields legislation that recently was reintroduced in Congress by a bipartisan group of senators.”

Changaris sees Whitman as a pragmatist. “She's not a political hero, but [she's] adept at managing her way through,” he says. “While [private waste industry professionals] want more, she has maintained some semblance of control and given us a little bit of breathing room.”

Spencer Abraham

For Michigan Republican Spencer Abraham, the past few months have been a political roller coaster. Weeks after losing his U.S. Senate seat to Democratic challenger Debbie Stabenow — a disappointing loss for the Republican party struggling to keep control of Congress — Abraham was appointed to head the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Washington, D.C.

Ironically, this is the very department that Abraham twice voted to dismantle. Concerned about the DOE's management structure and operational success, Abraham co-sponsored bills in 1996 and 1999 to close the department and privatize, or reassign, the functions worth preserving.

Now forced to explain his change of heart, Abraham also is facing expensive problems that challenge the core of his fiscally conservative beliefs and could determine the future of landfill gas and waste-to-energy (WTE) projects: an energy crisis in California, fluctuating oil and natural gas prices, and mounting pressure to develop renewable energy sources.

Abraham long has been an advocate of small government and lower taxes. As the son of an autoworker and grandson of Lebanese immigrants, he constantly looks for ways to ease the burden of taxes and regulation on average Americans.

In 1994, when Abraham became the first Republican in his state elected to the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years, his platform was founded on cutting taxes and trimming entitlements. Since then, Abraham has fought to deliver on that promise, suggesting a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut in 1996, a 25 percent flat tax in 1997 and a $100 billion tax cut in 1998.

Abraham also has tried to ease government's burden on businesses, sponsoring a law to make Brownfields cleanup expenses more quickly deductible. This is significant because, as a top executive advisor, Abraham could influence President Bush on new Brownfields legislation that recently was reintroduced in Congress by a bipartisan group of senators. Designed to protect Brownfields developers from future lawsuits, the legislation attempts to provide finality for site cleanups.

But Abraham does not always oppose government's intervention in business matters. To address flow control after the Supreme Court outlawed the practice, Abraham supported legislation allowing states to impose “reasonable restrictions” on the waste that comes into their borders, says Ken Silfven, press secretary for Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Lansing, Mich.

“Spence was a good friend to us on that issue while he was in Congress,” Silfven says. “Although the legislation never made it through Congress, Spence was on our side.”

Abraham also has proven willingness to invest in long-term infrastructure, new technology and the environment. As Senator, he placed the omnibus bill provisions for 10,000 college scholarships for low-income students in engineering and computer science. He also supported a transportation bill that increased road-repair spending in Michigan from $512 million to $825 million. Additionally, he co-sponsored the National Parks and Restoration Act and helped push through the Senate a bill protecting migratory birds.

This could bode well for landfill gas and WTE projects during Abraham's tenure as DOE Secretary. Certainly, he has advocated these projects in the past, says Curt Ranger, president of DTE Biomass Energy Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich.

“[We] have a long history of interacting with Spence on a variety of issues, including environmentally friendly power facilities,” Ranger says. “Spence understands the issues facing our industry and now is in a position to help us do more projects.”

With Michigan Republican David Camp promising to re-introduce a WTE tax credit bill into the U.S. House of Representatives this session, Abraham's attitude toward government support of renewable energy development could be pivotal.

In accordance with President Bush's energy agenda, one of Abraham's priorities is to develop U.S. domestic energy generation capacity to reduce American's dependence on imported oil.

“Our continued economic prosperity is directly linked to assuring adequate supplies of reasonably priced energy,” Abraham told Congress on the eve of his confirmation as Energy secretary.

To that end, the DOE under Abraham's guidance has announced a nationwide competition for new power plant technologies, which offers $95 million in federal matching funds for clean coal technology projects.

Critics of the Republican energy bill say that initiatives such as these represent only a token effort to explore cleaner technologies. The bill focuses almost entirely on new energy production rather than on lowering energy demands, says David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, Washington, D.C. “This imbalanced bill gives a gentle nod to efficiency, but makes a deep bow to expensive and exotic energy production,” he says.

While renewable energy sources are not being explored quickly enough to suit some conservationists, the DOE predicts significant growth in domestic renewable electricity generation by 2020 — specifically in biomass and landfill gas generation. [See “DOE's Annual Energy Outlook 2001” on page 60]

Despite the issues currently being handled by the DOE, some in the waste industry do not expect big changes with Abraham at the helm.

“From our perspective, change in an administration doesn't have much of an impact on the issues that affect our industry,” says Sarah Voss, a spokeswoman for Waste Management Inc., Houston.

But private renewable energy producers such as Curt Ranger see Abraham's tenure as an opportunity.

“I look forward to meeting with [Abraham] soon to discuss offering our environmental and energy services to additional markets in the United States,” Ranger says.

Norman Mineta

Democrat Norman Mineta's career can be characterized as a series of “firsts.” He was the first Asian Pacific American mayor of a major U.S. city (San Jose, Calif.), the first chair of the U.S. House of Representatives' Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the first Asian Pacific American to serve in the Cabinet, and now the first Secretary of Transportation to have previously served in a Cabinet position. (He served as Commerce Secretary during the Clinton administration.)

But it is Mineta's ability to unite with his political peers — rather than his tendency to stand-out — that has propelled his four-decade-long political career, says Bob Price, a former Washington, D.C. lobbyist for Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI).

“Mineta never was viewed as an ideologue when he was in Congress,” Price says. “I think that's why you see him both in a Democratic and a Republican administration.”

Similar to Whitman and Abraham, Mineta believes in giving more decision-making power to state and local governments. As mayor of San Jose, Calif., Mineta worked to give local governments more control over transportation decisions. Almost 20 years later, as chairman of the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee, Mineta was a key author of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, which shifted decisions on highway and mass transit planning to state and local governments.

However, Mineta is a champion of protecting individual rights and workers' rights with federal intervention, sometimes over objections from business interests. In the 100th Congress, Mineta championed labor protection provisions requiring airline carriers to pay benefits to workers hurt by mergers. He also worked to require airlines to make public disclosures about flight delays and lost baggage. Additionally he opposed President George Bush Sr.'s proposal to assess airline travelers a user fee to help pay for airport improvements.

Mineta's record is significant, especially with truck drivers' hours of service issues now on the table. Both sides of the issue play to Mineta's labor concerns: Ensuring workers' safety is important, but restricting the number of hours that truck drivers are allowed to work, considering the rising cost of fuel, could harm workers financially.

“Labor has not taken a strong position [on hours of service] one way or the other,” says Bill Sells, director of federal relations at the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C. “They don't want to imply that they're not concerned about safety, but at the same time, they want to protect workers who need to make enough money.”

So far, Mineta has not commented on this issue, but he has touted safety as his primary goal. In a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Feb. 2001, he said, “In everything we do and in every improvement we consider, we must continue to make safety our paramount and overriding concern.”

To this end, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has announced $8.53 million in grants to improve states' traffic records.

Mineta also has signaled his desire to ease the burden on industries that rely on long-haul trucking. On Feb. 20, 2001, the DOT announced it is considering a truck-driver pilot program from the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA), Alexandria, Va., that would place 18- to 21-year-olds behind the wheel. The current age cut-off for commercial drivers is 21, but human resource recruiters hope this initiative will expand the pool of eligible drivers. [See “DOT To Consider Younger Truck Drivers” on page 32.]

Another issue lingering at the DOT is the release of the Department's Specialized Hauling Vehicle (SHV) study. Required under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, the study examines the effects of truck weight standards on specialized hauling vehicles. Although a draft of the study — including comments from the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C., the American Trucking Associations (ATA), Alexandria, Va., and others — was completed in Oct. 2000, the final report containing Secretary Mineta's recommendations has not yet been released.

The NSWMA has argued that garbage haulers are hurt by current federal truck weight limits. Garbage trucks start out empty and fill up en route, and they must carry heavy equipment to load and compact garbage, says EIA State Programs Director Chaz Miller, who helped draft the NSWMA's comments. This makes garbage trucks unique among specialized hauling vehicles.

“NSWMA believes this dilemma can be resolved by allowing the states to establish a special permits program allowing [municipal solid waste] hauling vehicles to use interstate and national highway system roads throughout the state,” and allowing states to determine appropriate speed limits, safety requirements and road maintenance fees, the comments say.

While it is difficult to determine how Mineta will approach the transportation issues currently facing the waste industry, those who have watched Mineta's career say he will be even-handed and take decisive action.

“It is Mineta's ability to unite with his political peers — rather than his tendancy to stand-out — that has propelled his four-decade-long political career … Mineta was never viewed as an ideologue when he was in Congress. I think that's why you see him both in a Democratic and Republican administration.”

As one Washington insider notes, “The one quality I would use to describe Mineta is ‘centrist.’ He was never viewed as dogmatic, nor was he wishy-washy. He would just ask, ‘What's the problem, and what, if anything, can government do to fix the problem?’”

Brook Raflo is a Waste Age Assistant Editor. For more information on legislative issues, visit

The President's Cabinet and Top Advisors

Like the chairman of a large company, the U.S. president surrounds himself with experts in specific fields, appointing 15 executive department directors to bring him up-to-speed on a wide range of issues. These “Cabinet” members (a term derived from the Italian word “cabinetto,” meaning “a small room”) meet privately with the president in the White House Cabinet Room — often weekly — to discuss policy. They include:

  • Secretary of Agriculture: Ann Veneman;
  • Secretary of Commerce: Don Evans;
  • Secretary of Defense: Donald Rumsfeld;
  • Secretary of Education: Rod Paige;
  • Secretary of Energy: Spencer Abraham;
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services: Tommy Thompson;
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Mel Martinez;
  • Secretary of Interior: Gale Norton;
  • Attorney General: John Ashcroft;
  • Secretary of Labor: Elaine Chao;
  • Secretary of State: Colin Powell;
  • Secretary of Transportation: Norman Mineta;
  • Secretary of Treasury: Paul O'Neill;
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Anthony Principi; and
  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator: Christine Todd Whitman.
  • Agency Missions

    Environmental Protection Agency: To protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment — air, water and land — upon which all life depends.

    Department of Energy: To foster a secure and reliable energy system that is environmentally sustainable, to be a responsible steward of the Nation's nuclear weapons, to clean up our own facilities and to support continued United States leadership in science and technology.

    Department of Transportation: To serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.