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Published April 22, 2013, 12:56 PM

Bittleman promises improved communications

Sarah Bittleman, the new agriculture counselor at the Environmental Protection Agency, announces her intent to improve communications between farmers and the EPA.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Sarah Bittleman, the new agriculture counselor at the Environmental Protection Agency, is determined to improve communications between rural America and an agency that many farmers consider both economically and culturally threatening.

“My door is open,” Bittleman told Agweek. “My title is agriculture counselor to the administrator, but in order for me to counsel EPA on agriculture, I need to hear from the farmers.”

If anyone can turn around EPA’s relationship with rural America, it may be Bittleman. She comes to EPA after serving as senior adviser to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on energy and EPA issues. In that capacity, she was viewed as a strong advocate for renewable fuels, including ethanol.

Before that, she worked at the Interior Department and in both the House and the Senate on issues ranging from energy and natural resources to Native Americans and climate change. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from East Carolina University, a law degree from Tulane University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Union College in New York.

“Sarah Bittleman is an excellent to choice to play that role at EPA,” said Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis, a former National Farmers Union president and aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “She is open minded, always willing to listen.”

Bittleman said it was Larry Elworth, her predecessor, who suggested that she apply for the job. Bittleman said she was initially reluctant to leave USDA, but that she and others in the administration decided that she “had the skill sets” to “pivot” to the EPA position.

Because EPA Adminsitrator Lisa Jackson was about to leave, Bittleman was hired by Bob Perciasepe, the acting administrator. Gina McCarthy has been nominated for the post, and had her recent Senate confirmation hearing.

Open to ag

In her new job, Bittleman said, “I explain ag to EPA and EPA to ag.”

A major part of that role will be to get out around the country and talk to farmers about their concerns. Although she started at EPA just two days before the start of the Commodity Classic in late February, she attended that meeting of corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum growers to meet the leaders of those grower groups.

Bittleman said her overall goals at EPA are to increase economic opportunity, make sure rural Americans “know what is coming down the pike,” and to create jobs.

EPA has agricultural advisers in each of its regional offices, as well as people scattered throughout the agency headquarters who are interested in agriculture, she said, and one of her roles will be to find ways for all those advisers to be heard by high-level decision makers within the agency.

“There is a network of folks at EPA who are genuinely interested in agriculture,” she said. “I want to create a better network of folks at EPA who really get this. This is not rocket science, a lot of it is good old-fashioned communications.”

Bittleman said she has found it easy to get farmers to tell her their views. “I hardly need to ask the question before the wellspring of information comes forth.”

For all her desire to create a good relationship between EPA and rural America, Bittleman does defend her new agency as one that is needed in the country.

“The EPA is a 40-year-old agency that has done extraordinary work,” she said, pointing out that since the agency imposed clean air and water standards, the air in Los Angeles has improved, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River no longer catches on fire and brownfields are being cleaned up. EPA also has created job opportunities, she added.

Many of those jobs have been created through renewable fuels, which the agency regulates.

Misinformation

Jackson never got credit in rural America for making pro-ethanol decisions, but she was vilified for going through the process of considering regulation of dust on rural roads, milk spills and other issues. Jackson noted that many of the issues under consideration were required by law or court decisions, and rejected the rural dust and milk spill proposals, but not before farm leaders and Republicans on Capitol Hill made her a pariah in rural America.

“There was a lot of misinformation that got out,” Bittleman said. “There were not enough voices trying to clean up the misinformation. We can definitely do better. That is part of my job and my plan to actually fix that.”

One decision EPA has said it does regret was responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from environmental groups by releasing tapes of private information about individual feedlots, including names, addresses and phone numbers of 80,000 farmers and ranchers. That decision was made just before she arrived at EPA, Bittleman noted, but the agency has since asked the groups to return the tapes.

Earth Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pew Charitable Trust and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which also got the information, have returned the tapes and EPA has supplied new tapes with the personal information redacted. When asked whether she trusted the environmental groups not to use the information, Bittleman declined to answer.

Looking ahead, Bittleman said many of the actions EPA needs to take to further clean up air and water will be “incremental” and require the help of others.

“My philosophy is that it needs partners to get to the next level. Ag is a natural, but not always a willing partner. Part of the challenge is figuring out how to partner with people who don’t want to partner with us.

“Ag is not a monolithic group within and that is what makes it just that more fun,” she added.

On specific issues, EPA will soon be faced with decisions on methyl bromide, the Chesapeake Bay and on making sure fuel tanks on farms don’t leak, an issue known as spill protection and containment, Bittleman said.

EPA will also be under pressure to make changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard and other renewable fuels. Oddly enough, Bittleman said, she cannot be as big an advocate on renewable fuels at EPA as she used to be.

“It’s a little bit harder for me to be the pure advocate I was at USDA, now that I belong to the agency that regulates and implements it,” she said. But she added that her position doesn’t really matter because “the administration is an advocate for renewable fuels.”

While some people have told Bittleman they believe she has moved to a much bigger agency, she noted that EPA has only 16,000 employees compared with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 100,000. She thinks the misperception is because USDA is familiar to the 16 percent of the population that lives in rural America, while EPA is known to the 84 percent that lives in the rest of the country.

“I have come to a smaller agency that has a big mandate,” she said.

To a degree, the differences between EPA and farmers are cultural, she acknowledged.

“I am not going to be able to make everybody happy,” Bittleman concluded.

“I can’t make agriculture happy with EPA. My job is to help keep agriculture informed about what EPA is up to, and [tell EPA] how agriculture is going to respond to what EPA is going to do.”

But most of all, Bittleman wants to make sure farmers know what is really going on.

“Farmers and ranchers have enough to worry about without worrying about myths,” Bittleman said. “They have real stuff to worry about — the price of fertilizer, the price of seed. Not ‘am I going to get regulated?’”

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