Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsAn EPA controversy brewing in the Midwest calls to mind the U.S. attorneys scandal, as Brad Johnson noted yesterday. Top officials in the agency have forced Mary Gade, head of the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, to step down from her post or be fired by June 1. The ouster comes after Gade pressured Dow Chemical to clean up the dioxin-saturated soil and sediment extending 50 miles downstream from its Michigan headquarters.

Gade is also the former director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and, perhaps most notably, a George W. Bush supporter and adviser. In 2000, she went to bat for then-governor and candidate Bush in an environmental roundtable for The Atlantic, praising his “fresh approach” and “strong leadership.” But even her political loyalties couldn’t shield her from an administration bent on protecting the chemical industry rather than the environment.

Gade authored a paper [PDF] several years ago for the Reason Public Policy Institute on the importance of an environmental protection system that allows state and regional regulators to take the lead on local concerns:

In the past 30 years, we have made dramatic strides with our centrally managed, highly prescriptive regulatory system — a system that was innovative in its time, if only for the sheer scope of its reach. Yet we cannot regulate dry cleaners, printers, and auto body shops in the same way we regulated steel mills and chemical manufacturers. We must augment our law enforcement regime with a market-based, problem-solving approach — an approach that has been tested successfully in the states. …

Most importantly, the states are bringing decision-making authority closer to the diverse stakeholders and constituents affected by government environmental programs. … While often overshadowed by their federal partner, the states are the primary actors implementing U.S. environmental laws today. The states also have been blessed with creative regulatory leaders who are using innovative approaches to solve environmental problems. However, statutory and cultural obstacles at the federal level have limited state innovation and problem-solving.

And here’s Gade talking about public concern over pollution in the Great Lakes at an Earth Day event just a few weeks ago.

As Robert M. Sussman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former deputy administrator of the EPA, points out, an ouster like this is (or should be) rare, as the EPA’s regions are traditionally given broad discretion in dealing with local cleanups:

If Mary stood up for her career staff and pushed for strong action to abate contamination, she was only performing her job under the environmental laws as she saw it. It is hard to believe that Mary, an astute and successful lawyer in private practice with a long track record of implementing the federal contamination laws, would overstep legal boundaries. If her only sin was zeal in protecting the public, firing her was wrong and will send a troubling message to EPA employees all across the country who are trying to do their jobs. Clearly, it’s up to Steve Johnson to explain why he fired Mary and up to Congress to investigate the circumstances.