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Mr. Perciasepe goes to Washington


IF ALL goes as planned, Robert (Bob) Perciasepe, Maryland's environmental chief, will be nominated as assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The nomination must be confirmed by the Senate, but the 42-year-old Mr. Perciasepe is no Lani Guinier. And with the strong support of Maryland's congressional delegation, particularly of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee that determines the EPA's budget, Mr. Perciasepe probably will begin his Baltimore-to-Washington commute by early fall.

Mr. Perciasepe's likely ascension to the EPA's No. 3 post is significant for a number of reasons. First, he becomes the highest-ranking Marylander to find a home in the new administration.

Second, contrary to rumors, this appointment has not been stymied by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's snub of President Clinton during last fall's presidential campaign. Mr. Schaefer isn't being invited to White House tea parties, but he still commands respect as governor (though perhaps not as politician).

Third, though he would have to recuse himself on permit and enforcement decisions related to his work as Maryland environmental secretary, Mr. Perciasepe still will be in a position to act on several matters of importance to his home state. Chief among them is the definition of "wetlands" and when, if ever, homes and businesses can be built on wetlands. The state's real estate and development industries, as well as property owners on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, are in a state of high anxiety over the issue.

Mr. Perciasepe's department was created in 1987 (and he is only its second secretary), but it's perhaps the most politically sensitive of government agencies, dealing with water and air pollution, hazardous waste, trash disposal (including recycling) and automobile emission controls. It is Mr. Perciasepe's department that approves sewage treatment plants and incinerators and that enforces the Clean Air Act in Maryland.

By most accounts, Mr. Perciasepe, in office for only three years, has been an aggressive administrator unafraid to take on powerful interests. (In March, for example, he fined Aberdeen Proving Ground $5,000 for dumping chemical wastes.)

And also by most accounts, the environment in Maryland has generally improved during his brief tenure. Water pollution problems have eased, and good things have been happening with the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. A coalition of industry leaders, farmers and operators of municipal sewage treatment plants has been working with a new sense of urgency. And nearly 500,000 Marylanders, many more than expected, have purchased special bay license plates, lending their financial and symbolic support to saving the Chesapeake.

Mr. Perciasepe has led a joint effort by states in the Northeast to require stricter California emissions standards for new cars, and he has promulgated tougher new standards for emissions testing of used cars. He has urged counties and municipalities to do a better job of waste management and has been an enthusiastic proponent of recycling.

Mr. Perciasepe, a hard-working, straight-arrow career public servant who was Mr. Schaefer's mayoral assistant in Baltimore for 12 years, has walked a prickly path between two traditional adversaries -- business and the environmental community -- and has earned the respect of both.

Like Vice President Albert Gore, he believes that pollution presents opportunities for economic development because technology and service industries are needed to clean it up. Accompanying the governor on his recent trip to Eastern Europe, Mr. Perciasepe took a letter of introduction from 25 such companies in Maryland, and some contracts apparently will result.

But Mr. Perciasepe believes also that attitudinal changes are necessary to improve the environment. Expensive equipment for treating waste wouldn't be necessary if it weren't created in the first place. In Washington, he should have the chance to try out this eminently sensible idea.

Bruce L. Bortz, editor of Maryland Report newsletter, writes here on alternate Thursdays.

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