D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday proposed creating a cabinet-level Department of Environment that would focus on providing District residents with cleaner air, clearer water and more inviting parks and open spaces.
At a news conference kicking off a week-long Earth Day celebration, Williams (D) said he would work with Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and other advocates of a free-standing environmental agency to win council approval for the proposal and add funding for it to the city's fiscal 2006 budget.
"All of us believe it's high time that our nation's capital had a Department of Environment," Williams said. "The tremendous investment we've seen in our city has been a blessing. But we see . . . bad impacts from this, as well."
Williams said the new agency probably would combine some functions performed by a variety of existing agencies, including the departments of Health, Public Works and Parks and Recreation. He said the agency also would take the lead in enforcing District laws regarding recycling, a task currently performed by three Public Works inspectors.
"We're trying to centralize what's being done in other agencies," said Schwartz, who introduced legislation this year to create the stand-alone agency. "I knew the mayor was interested, so I got the ball rolling."
According to administration officials, virtually every city and state in the nation has an environmental department to coordinate policies regarding air and water quality and to enforce environmental laws. The District, by contrast, spreads those duties over more than a dozen agencies, with the Health Department bearing primary responsibility for many environmental issues. Directors of those agencies meet monthly to form the city's environmental task force.
Williams has long considered the task force to be an inadequate vehicle to address the array of environmental problems facing the District, including worsening air quality and a heavily polluted Anacostia River. Last year, the discovery of high concentrations of lead in the city's drinking water further highlighted the need for a separate agency, according to administration officials.
The bumbling efforts of the city's Health Department to respond to the crisis "made it so clear that there was really a lack of accountability and coordination," said Elizabeth Berry, senior adviser to the mayor for environmental affairs. With interest in an environmental agency also high on the council, Berry said, the mayor decided to move forward with yesterday's announcement.
So far, Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and six other council members have signed on as co-sponsors to Schwartz's bill. Schwartz, who chairs the council's committee on public works and the environment, has not set a hearing on the measure.
Neither Williams nor Schwartz could provide additional details about the legislation, saying they will work together to craft a final bill. Nor could they say how much a new agency would cost the city, though Schwartz said she believes the cost would be negligible.
"It will cost some money," Williams said. "But I think the benefit the city will get from an environment department would well outweigh that."