The corporate background of President Obama's pick for the nation's top environmental litigator has spurred concerns that she is ill-suited to lead the office charged with tackling corporate polluters.
Obama announced plans earlier this week to nominate Ignacia Moreno, counsel of corporate environmental programs at General Electric Corp., to serve as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division (Greenwire, May 13).
If confirmed by the Senate, Moreno would take the helm of the office tasked with enforcing environmental laws and defending federal regulations in lawsuits. But environmental groups fear that Moreno's tenure as a corporate attorney makes her a poor choice to lead the nation's environmental litigation efforts.
"The question is: Is she the best possible person for that job, given the sensitive nature of that position?" said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "It seems as if she has spent maybe more time defending polluters than prosecuting them."
Prior to joining GE in 2006, Moreno worked at the Washington law firm Spriggs & Hollingsworth, where she specialized in environmental and mass tort litigation. She also worked for DOJ during the Clinton administration, serving as special assistant and principal counsel to the assistant attorney general for the environment division. She began her career at Hogan & Hartson LLP, where she practiced with the firm's environmental and litigation groups.
"There's a huge amount of concern circulating through the environmental community" about Moreno's nomination, said Alex Matthiessen, president of the New York-based environmental group Riverkeeper.
"She's essentially moving to the opposite side of the issue with very little experience as an environmental law enforcer," he said. Although she worked in DOJ's environment division from 1994 until 2001, "she seemed to have a fairly minor role in the division," he added.
Matthiessen, whose group focuses on cleaning up pollution in the Hudson River, said he was particularly troubled by Moreno's tenure as counsel to GE, whose plants discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River in New York between 1947 and 1977. GE is accused of dragging its feet for years to avoid the costly cleanup.
PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens and are linked to adverse health effects including low birth weight, thyroid disease and other disorders, according to EPA.
GE is set to begin dredging the Hudson River Superfund site this morning to remove PCBs from the sediment as part of a $750 million cleanup project resulting from a settlement with EPA (see related story).
If Moreno is confirmed for the DOJ post, Matthiessen said, "there's a potential conflict of interest if General Electric attempts to pull out of this cleanup."
GE spokesman Peter O'Toole defended the plant's cleanup efforts, noting that PCBs were not banned by the federal government until 1977. "We own up to our obligations, and the starting of the dredging of the Hudson River today is a demonstration of that," he said.
Eric Schaeffer, director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, disputed the notion that Moreno's corporate background makes her unfit to lead the DOJ office. Schaeffer resigned as chief of EPA's enforcement office in 2002 in protest of the Bush administration's enforcement tactics.
"I think the idea that if you have industry experience, you can't be a good enforcer -- I don't really think that," he said, adding that he does not know Moreno personally.
Schaeffer cited Granta Nakayama, EPA's top enforcement official under President George W. Bush, as an example of a good enforcer with industry experience. Nakayama worked at Washington lobbying firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP for 11 years prior to his 2005 appointment as EPA assistant administrator for enforcement.
"If you have the right person who has industry experience, they can basically use that to the government's advantage," Schaeffer said, because the nominee comes with knowledge of industry's inner workings.