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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Wyoming attorney Tom Sansonetti is the Bush Administration's nominee to be the nation's top environmental law enforcer. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on how his Senate confirmation process is going.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. From the first days of the Bush Administration, some nominees for cabinet level posts have drawn criticism, as well as praise, on environmental grounds. And, while Gale Norton, Tom Ashcroft, and Spencer Abraham are now on the job as cabinet secretaries, the battles continue for the more junior positions.

WOMAN: Do you swear that the testimony you're about to be given before the committee will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


CURWOOD: Thomas Sansonetti is the nominee to be the next Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources at the Justice Department. If confirmed, Mr. Sansonetti will be charged with prosecuting the people and the companies that break the nation's environmental laws. And, as the government's top environmental lawyer, he would also help decide how to help defend the nation's environmental laws in court. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on how the confirmation process is going.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Opening testimony came from two of Sansonetti's strongest supporters--the Republican senators from his home state, Wyoming. Craig Thomas and Michael Enzi both had high praise for Sansonetti's character, and each noted his accomplishments as solicitor for the Interior Department during the first Bush Administration. Senator Enzi particularly remembered Sansonetti's work on the high profile Exxon Valdez settlement.

ENZI: Over the years, I've watched Tom's legal progress, and I'm not surprised by his success. He sees every side of an issue, he can negotiate the most contentious situation, he's fair, he gets the job done, and he gets it done well. I highly recommend to you Tom Sansonetti.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Republicans departed promptly after their testimony, and Sansonetti was left facing Democrats, who proceeded to question him for close to two hours. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy told Sansonetti he's concerned the Bush White House is failing to enforce existing environmental protections, especially those enacted during the final stages of the Clinton administration. He pointed to the debate over a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires power plants to install new equipment to control emissions when they rebuild or expand their facilities. Industry has long argued the upgrades cost them too much time and money. In 1999, the Clinton administration sued a number of coal-fired power plants for violating the rule, a move Senator Leahy supported.

LEAHY: Now, various energy interests, including the coal industry clients for whom you've been lobbying in recent years, are reportedly making efforts to rescind Department of Justice and EPA enforcement.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Senator Leahy asked Sansonetti if he could enforce laws against companies he'd represented throughout his career.

SANSONETTI: I think I can, and I think that I have done so in the past. I had those clients, in the 1980s, and when I became associate solicitor it was my job to enforce the law against those folks. The same thing in the 1990s. I was responsible for the Office of Surface Mining. That was the organization that chased those coal companies that did not reclaim as they should. And I have never heard or been told that I did not do that job with vigor, and I would do it again.

LEAHY: Are you going to raise a question of appearance in the public?

SANSONETTI: I am delighted that you highlighted this issue. I have heard this from a number of different folks and I...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The conversation quickly turned to a subject that's provoked some controversy in Washington: at the American Petroleum Institute last spring, meetings were held as part of a series of talks designed to help guide Vice President Cheney in crafting the administration's energy policy. That process is now under investigation by the General Accounting Office regarding allegations that it was weighted unfairly with industry interests. Senator Leahy cited reports that Sansonetti played a major role in those meetings and Sansonetti said that was true. But he explained that he was simply there to take notes for the vice president.

SANSONETTI: My job was just to extract from them what they thought the new administration's policies would be.

LEAHY: Did you make any recommendations?

SANSONETTI: I wrote all of them down and turned them over, lock, stock and barrel, to the people that went over to the Department of the Interior. So, recommendations, no.

LEAHY: Did you take part in any of the recommendations that were made?


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington state, used the ongoing debate over the roadless rule to test Sansonetti's commitment to defend the nation's environmental laws. The new rule would ban road building in almost 60 million acres of national forest. It was published in the final days of the Clinton administration, and logging interests quickly went to court to block it. The Bush administration said Cantwell failed to appeal the industry's lawsuits, and didn't even bother to show up at a hearing on the matter before a federal court.

CANTWELL: So here, we have a rule that's on the books and yet we're not really defending it. So, I guess my question to you is: do you think what the Department of Justice has done constitutes a defense of the rule?

SANSONETTI: This is a very important issue.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Sansonetti began by saying he didn't know enough about the case to judge the department's actions. Then he added this:

SANSONETTI: It is my position that if there is a law on the books and the United States is sued on that particular application of that rule, then it's my job to defend the United States and all of its people.

CANTWELL: So, does that translate into a position, if you are confirmed, that will defend the roadless rule on its merits, and instruct the attorneys to begin a substantive participation in the case?

SANSONETTI: Well, again, I'm not going to characterize what they've done, thus far, as either substantive or non-substantive, because it would be pre-judging what somebody else has done that I don't know. But, as far as where I go once I get into the building is concerned, I'm going to say, "What is the status of the roadless rule, as it exists?" And then I'll say, "Our job is to defend that."

CANTWELL: And defend it substantively?

SANSONETTI: And to substantively defend it. Yes, ma'am.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In lieu of a defense by the government, several environmental groups have gone to court to uphold the roadless rule. One of the lawyers they've hired is Pat Parenteau. Parenteau is a professor at the Vermont Law School, and he has a bit of history with Tom Sansonetti. During the first Bush administration the Bureau of Land Management wanted an exemption from the Endangered Species Act so it could sell timber in areas where the Spotted Owl was at risk. The Fish and Wildlife Service fought the exemption, and Pat Parenteau was brought in to argue its case. But he says Sansonetti, who oversaw the proceedings, let politics get in the way of the legal argument.

PARENTEAU: The person that worked directly under him directed me to withdraw certain arguments that I had made on behalf of the Fish & Wildlife Service.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Rather than withdraw those arguments, Parenteau resigned. In another case, he says Sansonetti violated public participation rules, in a mining decision that benefited industry.

PARENTEAU: In politics it's called a tin ear, and maybe that's what it is here. He does not see the legal issues the way that I think an independent, objective lawyer ought to see them. He puts too much of his political baggage in the way of looking at the law.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If confirmed, Sansonetti will quickly get a chance to prove his skeptics wrong. Recently, the Bush administration reversed a rule that authorized the government to veto irreparably harmful mining projects. Environmental groups have sued, and the case will likely be one of the first on the to-do list for Sansonetti. He can influence how quickly it's dealt with and what tone the government takes in its defense. Those who've worked with Tom Sansonetti warn critics against judging him too quickly. From their days together at the Interior Department, Jim Streeter recalls Sansonetti as someone who gave straight legal device. Streeter, who's now policy director at the conservative National Wilderness Institution, remembers one case where Sansonetti was trying to settle a dispute between the park service and property owners.

STREETER: Tom just waited. He waited for all the facts to come in. He did not side with one or the other based simply on ideology. It was, to him, it was a matter of looking at what is the law, what is the obligation of the government in this case.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Tom Sansonetti's nomination process is expected to resume after the Thanksgiving recess. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.



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