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Voice in the Wilderness

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HISTORY WILL RECORD THAT A SUDDEN disappearing act by Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly—totally unrelated to the murky state of the Washington, D.C, atmosphere—saved a key provision of the 1990 Clean Air Act.

The landmark bill had become mired in October 1990 in the usual sludge of Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing. John Sununu, then White House chief of staff, needed the support of five congressmen for a budget initiative and offered, in exchange, to relax the standard for permissible acid-rain emissions. But, to protect themselves, the congressmen wanted written assurances from the EPA that the reduced standards would not significantly harm the environment. Reilly didn’t feel he could sign such a letter, so when Sununu aides came looking for his John Hancock, he made sure he couldn’t be found. On Oct. 20, 1990, he fled the capital for his 34-acre weekend farm in Loudoun County, Va. For two days, while the White House aides seethed, Reilly lay low in his 18th-century farmhouse, the phones mysteriously out of order.

His tactic worked. A handful of key congressmen refused to dilute the bill without Reilly’s endorsement, and the 1990 Clean Air Act passed unsullied. Without openly defying Sununu and budget director Richard Darman, the EPA chief had managed to thwart their efforts to sabotage the act—and survived to fight another day in the strange no-man’s-land he has inhabited since he took the EPA job in 1989. The first career environmentalist to hold the post since the agency was created by Richard Nixon in 1970, Reilly, 51, has the unenviable task of defending the environment in an administration that is deeply divided on ecological issues. Sununu and Darman, in particular, have been vociferous in their opposition to EPA initiatives—on global warming, acid rain and wetlands protection—that would hamstring development or be costly to U.S. industries.

“The heavy hand of John Sununu was on Reilly’s shoulder,” says Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R.N.Y.). By protecting the acid-rain controls, “he saved the Administration from a real embarrassment,” says Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House subcommittee on health and environment. “Reilly is doing the best he can in an extraordinarily difficult position.”

Environmental policy over the last few years has been “a struggle for the heart and mind of George Bush,” says Susan Sechler, director of the Aspen Institute’s rural-policy program. “Sununu and Darman wanted an EPA chief who rolled over and played dead.” Instead they have had to deal with one who picks his battles—and wins his share. In his three-year tenure, Reilly has convinced the Bush Administration to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals, ban asbestos in new American-made products and outlaw some dangerous pesticides. In 1989, in spite of industry and White House pressure, he refused to publicly declare the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill “under control” after just two weeks, forcing Exxon to redouble its mop-up efforts.

His most recent battle, over the preservation of U.S. wetlands (development supporters want to redefine the term to exclude “seasonal” wetlands, thus endangering half of the fragile 100 million acres now protected under federal law), pits Reilly’s EPA directly against the Council on Competitiveness. The Council, a pro-industry committee that evaluates proposed government regulations, is headed by Vice President Dan Quayle. It is not the first time the two groups have wrangled. “EPA is disproportionately getting it from [the council] because we have come out with 58 percent of all government regulations in this Administration,” says Reilly. “We’re doing things.” But it took him nearly a year on the job, he says, “to adjust to the reality that I can’t do it all.”

Whether he does enough is a matter of disagreement in the environmental movement. “Reilly says things would be worse without him,” says Daniel Becker, a Sierra Club expert on global warming—an issue on which the Bush Administration has been intransigent. “But that argument is wearing thin. He is a well-meaning environmentalist who is being used by the Administration to cover up its poor environmental record.”

A child of the Midwest, William Kane Reilly was born near the family’s 200-acre farm in Decatur, 111. His father sold highway supplies and steel until a steel strike in the late ’40s. Then the Reillys, including mother Margaret and older sister Carole, moved to Texas, then Massachusetts, according to his father’s jobs. Reilly attended Yale, then went on to Harvard Law School, where he met his future wife, Libbie, now a semiprofessional opera singer who performs in Italy each summer.

Though he opposed the Vietnam War, Reilly joined ROTC at Yale. Later, at Harvard, “[Libbie’s] roommate was wearing an arm band protesting the war and asked me how I could possibly stay in ROTC,” recalls Reilly. “Libbie told her roommate simply, ‘Patriot.’ And that’s true. Some sort of Midwestern sense that you serve your country.”

After graduating from law school in 1965, Reilly, a gifted linguist, was assigned to Army counterintelligence in Europe. He then earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia University while working for a series of nonprofit environmental groups. “I didn’t come into this field as a wilderness type,” he says. “I was interested in. . .how you convert land without mining the environment.” In 1982, while president of the World Wildlife Fund, he drew attention to himself by sharply criticizing Ronald Reagan’s ecological record. George Bush, who wanted to be “the environmental President,” took notice of the handsome, well-spoken fellow Yalie and offered Reilly the EPA job in l989.

According to EPA chief of staff Gordon Binder, “Bill came into the EPA and drove the bureaucrats crazy” by almost at once vetoing a Colorado dam that would have destroyed a scenic canyon. But the new job threatened to make his family a little uneasy too. His daughter Megan, now 16, reported that one of her teachers had once held up a front-page story about global warming. He said, “Your father lost. George Bush doesn’t give a s—about the environment,” then threw the crumpled story at her. “I asked Megan if I should go to the principal,” Reilly recalls. “She said, ‘Don’t worry; that teacher is such an adolescent.’ I knew then she’d be fine.”

Megan, older daughter Katherine, a 21-year-old Yale senior, and Libbie, 48, are all active members of Reilly’s own kitchen cabinet in their Alexandria, Va., town house. Libbie clips newspaper articles on the environment, marks them READ THIS! and leaves them on Bill’s pillow at night. The entire family has shared in the warm affection between Reilly and the President and are frequent guests at the White House.

“By all evidence…the President is happy” with [me], says Reilly, who remains convinced that the President is sincere in his environmental concerns, even though Bush has been swayed by Sununu on such issues as global warming. Sununu even went so far as to doctor Bush’s speech to an international conference on the issue in February 1990 to reflect Sununu’s contention that warming is only a hypothetical threat. Reilly was dismayed but remains secure enough in his job to be unruffled by the ubiquitous rumors that he is about to resign—planted, he believes, by people eager to see him go. “If you do this job at all, you’re going to make enemies,” says Reilly. His personal credo is pragmatic: to weigh each environmental threat according to the danger it poses, and to spend his ammunition where he thinks it will do the most good. “Nothing is 100 percent safe,” he has written. “Neither are all risks equal.”