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Perseverance on Clean Air Pays Dividends for Browner

EPA chief still standing after bare-knuckle brawl over standards

While still bracing for a fight in Congress, Carol Browner can breathe a lot easier today.

For weeks, it was rumored the embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was on the politically endangered species list. The target of a multimillion-dollar negative ad campaign by business and under attack from some of her own colleagues at the White House, she just dug in her heels.

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Ms. Browner says current scientific evidence showed the nation's clean-air standards for smog and soot weren't tough enough, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were suffering.

"This is about allowing children to play outside on warm summer days," says Browner.

Known for staking out strong environmental stands, Browner is not a newcomer to political dogfights. She earned her stripes as legislative director for then-senator Al Gore from 1988-1991. She then moved to head Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation where she took on Walt Disney in a wetlands dispute and wealthy sugarcane growers over use of the Everglades.

Many pundits contend Browner's success in the clean-air fight secures her authority within the Clinton Cabinet, and in the history books as a forceful, effective EPA administrator.

"She really emerges from this a bright, shinning star," says Gene Karpinski, executive director of the United States Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG).

But to the business community, which vows to take its fight to Congress, Browner will be remembered for imposing costly, unnecessary regulations that they predict will cost tens of thousands of jobs.

"It's a dark day not for only Ohioans, but for many citizens across this country because a lot of people will be financially hurt this. It's just an extreme mean-spirited position," says Rep. Robert Ney (R) of Ohio. He has introduced a bill to block implementation of the standards and has more than 30 co-sponsors.

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The business community appeared to be making headway before the Clinton announcement.

"If we felt the science warranted it, we'd be fully supportive, but it ... doesn't," says Theresa Larson of the National Association of Manufacturers.

More than 250 legislators and almost 30 governors wrote the president and the EPA opposing the proposal, fearing it would stifle economic growth in the inner cities and drive up electric costs in the Midwest. The US Conference of Mayors also went on record this week opposing the move.

Last week, there was talk Browner had overstepped her bounds and undermined her own authority by refusing to bend. By Monday there were rumblings her stubbornness had put the administration in an awkward political position.

But by Wednesday, Browner emerged victorious, winning not only the full support of President Clinton, but also giving him a much-needed laurel to offer to a skeptical global environmental community - meeting this week at the United Nations in New York.

The new regulations represent the most sweeping environmental change of the decade. They will knock dozens of communities out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, forcing states to clean up their smokestacks and automobile exhausts or face penalties from Washington. The administration, however, built flexibility into the implementation, giving states several years to deal with the new standards.

"What this administration has shown repeatedly is through a combination of tough environmental standards and flexible implementation, you can have both a healthy economy and a clean environment," says Browner.

While Representative Nay says he's expecting more more support for his measure to block the new regulations, environmentalists are optimistic they'll prevail in Congress as well.

A poll for the Clean Air Trust in May found that 83 percent of Americans support the tougher standards. During the past two weeks, four Republicans have signaled their support for Browner.

She is expected to continue to stand firm. And now with the prestige of both the president and vice president behind her, few believe she'll lose.

"If you look at the history of the clean air effort in this country is, it's one of industry rising to the challenge, time and time again. And I really do believe they will do that again," says Browner.

New Clean-Air Standards

The EPA says the new standards will bring health benefits to 125 million Americans. The rules are expected to impact older coal-fired utilities, steel mills, automakers, and even controlled burns by the US Forest Service.

* Smog

The concentration of ozone, an element of smog, would be limited to 80 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. This replaces a standard of 120 parts per billion in a one-hour period, which the EPA considers flawed because it detected brief spurts of pollution more than persistent violations.

* Soot

Particles as small as 2.5 microns, or 28 times smaller than the width of a human hair, will be regulated for the first time.

* Timing

Monitoring systems for fine-soot particles should be developed within five years. States will have up to 10 years to comply with the new standards.

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