U.S. EPA air chief Gina McCarthy has a thick Boston accent, a shock of cropped white hair and a penchant for a good fight.
"I cannot shy away from controversy," she told a panel of EPA advisers recently. "I don't know if it's my Irish blood, but I love it. I love disagreements. I love the democratic process. If I'm in a room where everybody agrees, I start to nod off."
That is lucky for McCarthy, 55, whose job as the nation's top air regulator has her in what may be the world's hottest spot: the center of a political free-for-all over climate regulation and other air pollution policies.
As President Obama's nominee for the air office post, McCarthy got a whiff of how contentious her new job could be before she was even confirmed by the Senate. Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming stalled the vote on her confirmation for nearly a month last spring to protest EPA's movement toward using the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.
Barasso's "hold" prevented McCarthy from being present at the White House Rose Garden in May when Obama announced the first-ever national greenhouse gas emissions standard on cars and trucks.
"I was at home awaiting confirmation, really ticked off that it was my opportunity to meet the president, and I was not in that garden," she said.
"So much got done before I got here. I finally called up [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson, and I said, 'If you don't get these people off my back, I'm never coming there, because you are making all these commitments and dumping them on my lap, and I'm supposed to implement them. I'm supposed to at least get the pleasure of the announcement.'"
McCarthy quickly made up for lost time when she finally moved in June into her fifth-floor office at EPA headquarters, the Ariel Rios Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
McCarthy and her staff quickly rolled out several climate policies in response to the Supreme Court's 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision, which gave the agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants.
Environmentalists have hailed the proposals, which they say were long overdue, while conservative lawmakers and many industry groups have accused EPA of attempting to impose new regulations that would cripple a struggling economy.
But McCarthy, a veteran regulator and a pioneer in a Northeastern regional program to curb global warming emissions, has taken criticism and praise in stride.
"Even if there's controversy, I'm going to make the decision, and people are going to be happy in one instance and unhappy in the next," she said in an interview. "But that's the job I've been given and the job I'm going to embrace."
'I definitely challenge people'
McCarthy has a long to-do list.
At the top of the list are redoing a series of Bush-era rules that were tossed out in court, pioneering a national program to curb greenhouse gas emissions and keeping pace with federal deadlines for pollution programs -- deadlines the agency has consistently failed to meet in the past.
To have a shot at getting it all done, she will need the loyalty of EPA's career staffers, many of whom were disenchanted with the Bush administration's controversial air policies.
"What a breath of fresh air," said an EPA air employee who was not authorized to speak to the press and spoke on background. "She comes to us with much greater knowledge than most of the people that have been in that position recently."
The employee continued, "The most obvious difference is that she takes seriously the mission of the agency to protect public health and the environment. That is her agenda -- it's not to minimize the burden on industry, it's to protect people and the environment, and that makes all the difference in the world."
Diane Chisnall Joy, assistant director of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, called McCarthy -- who had led the state DEP -- a leader who values the opinions of her staff and works tirelessly. "She was always there to support the work that we did and never, ever failed to thank us," she said.
McCarthy admits she's "somewhat demanding" of her staff.
"I definitely challenge people," she said. "But hopefully, I am working harder than anybody else, and so people won't resent the fact that I want them to work hard, as well."
Working 12-hour days is not unusual for her. She typically arrives at the office around 8 a.m. When her husband is in town, she gets up early to walk their two dogs -- Tyson, a golden retriever, and Emma, whom she describes as a "little, poopy dog" her daughter handed off when she went to college. Tyson, who would chew on the family's ears when she was a puppy, was named after the ear-biting heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.
McCarthy usually leaves the office around 8 or 9 p.m. She goes home to the Pentagon City neighborhood of Arlington, Va., eats dinner and starts plugging away to make sure she's caught up on her e-mails, she said.
She finds it remarkable that her boss, Jackson, is just as work-obsessed as she is. "I will e-mail her at 11 o'clock at night, and at 11:01 I'll get an answer," McCarthy said.
McCarthy's staff can also expect to get those late-night notes.
"I've told them that they must stop returning my e-mails at 2 in the morning, because it creeps me out," she said.
New England roots
McCarthy grew up in Canton, just outside of Boston, in a working-class Irish Catholic family.
She still lives in Canton and has found it hard to tear herself away from her native Massachusetts, no matter where her work takes her.
McCarthy studied social anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She went to Tufts University for graduate work, receiving joint degrees in science and environmental health engineering and planning and policy.
McCarthy spent 25 years working on environmental issues in her home state in a variety of positions at the state and local levels. She moved to Connecticut in 2004 when Gov. Jodi Rell (R) appointed her commissioner at the state DEP. She got a studio apartment a few blocks from her office in Hartford, but she went home at least once during the week and during the weekend. "I realized," she said, "that I just wasn't gonna move."
When McCarthy took the EPA post in Washington, "for the most part, I started out going home every weekend," she said. Her husband, Kenneth McCarey, works from home as a wholesale floral salesman, so he sometimes comes to visit for stretches of several weeks.
"I like having him here, but I'm still lonely to go home," she said. The couple has three grown children -- ages 22, 23 and 25 -- who all live in the Boston area. "Every time I go home, it's an occasion for me and somewhat of an occasion for them," she said. "They like Sunday dinner."
McCarthy likes to cook for her kids when they come home. "I come from ... many generations of Irish people. We're meat and potato people, so I don't think that I'm the most creative cook, but I do love the 'Barefoot Contessa,'" she said, referring to the Food Network cooking show. "I could watch her endlessly."
But with two kids who are vegetarians and another who only eats chicken if she eats any meat, cooking can get complicated. "So for a meat and potato person, I have to get creative when my kids come," she said.
Passion for public health
You can learn a lot about McCarthy by looking at her early jobs, said Seth Kaplan, vice president for climate advocacy at the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation who worked extensively with McCarthy during her work at the state level.
She started her career in 1980 as the first full-time health agent in Canton. In 1984, she began working for the board of health in the neighboring town of Stoughton and eventually became the town's first environmental officer.
"She fundamentally has been on the ground thinking about and caring about and trying to take care of the public health of citizens," Kaplan said.
He compared her path to that of someone who started out driving a bus and ended up running the transit agency. "There's a special kind of knowledge that comes from having been the line person that I think infuses what she does."
When she was in graduate school, McCarthy gravitated toward health policy courses more than environmental work. "I've always been interested in health consequences," she said. "I see that as being the primary driver for my interest in environmental work, which is why air quality stuff as well as climate interests me tremendously -- because I see those as having really direct and very large health consequences associated with them."
In 1985, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) appointed McCarthy to serve as a member of a state hazardous waste safety council responsible for reviewing and permitting hazardous waste facilities. From there, she began working her way up in the Massachusetts government, holding key environmental posts under Republican Govs. William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and Mitt Romney.
McCarthy's federal appointment was met with broad acclaim from state regulators and environmentalists and with cautious optimism from many industry leaders.
As the head of Connecticut's DEP, McCarthy helped coordinate a multi-state effort to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation's first mandatory cap-and-trade program. She also won praise for her work on the state's No Child Left Inside program, as well as her efforts to restore the Long Island Sound and Connecticut's parks and forests.
Connecticut environmentalists were sad to see her go.
"We really were disappointed and ticked off when she left," said John Calandrelli, state program director of Connecticut's Sierra Club chapter. "She's very smart, has very good, high energy. She's a spark plug."
Although her tenure in Connecticut was short, she did very well working under tight budget constraints, said Calandrelli, adding that he wouldn't mind seeing her return to resume her job at DEP someday. "We were making big progress when Gina was here," he said.
A March editorial in the Hartford Courant said, "There's no other way to put this: Gina McCarthy will be a big loss."
DEP under McCarthy did come under fire in 2007 after a Courant article accused the agency of consistently lagging on enforcement action against chronic water polluters.
"We're trying to make that turn" toward stronger enforcement, then-Commissioner McCarthy told the Courant, "but we have some serious backlogs to contend with."
The March editorial noted that McCarthy inherited some of those enforcement problems and called her a "pragmatist who tried to bring companies into compliance without putting them into bankruptcy."
McCarthy has a reputation for being honest and straightforward when dealing with industry.
In Connecticut, McCarthy dealt with industry "very fairly," said Eric Brown, associate counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. She's "very genuine," Brown said. "The person you sit down with is the person she is."
Mary Beth Gentleman, an industry attorney at Foley Hoag's Boston office, spent time negotiating across the table from McCarthy when she was a Massachusetts official.
"In the negotiations that I participated in with Gina, the outcome was workable, practical, somewhat painful," Gentleman said, "but she got both environmental advocates and the company I was representing -- moved us from a deadlock position to a solution."
McCarthy has shown a willingness to listen to and understand industry's legitimate concerns, said Jeff Holmstead, former EPA air chief under the George W. Bush administration and now an industry lawyer. But, he added, "I wouldn't necessarily characterize her as industry-friendly. There's no doubt she believes in fairly aggressive regulation of industry."
McCarthy doesn't see herself that way.
"I never really thought of myself as a regulator," McCarthy said. "I actually am a strong believer in markets. I really think our job is to make sure that the work we do is valued and priced in the markets appropriately. And so I am a true believer in democracy -- in having government intervene when it needs to and not when it doesn't."