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Sunny Australia Sure Beats a Senate Hearing

When in Melbourne, be sure to visit the water-treatment facilities. That's what EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson is scheduled to do during a two-week trip to Australia. The EPA estimates that the trip will cost about $280,000.
When in Melbourne, be sure to visit the water-treatment facilities. That's what EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson is scheduled to do during a two-week trip to Australia. The EPA estimates that the trip will cost about $280,000. (By Dave Callow -- Associated Press)
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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, is quite put out these days with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. Seems Boxer had been working for several weeks to have Johnson -- no stranger to being hauled before her committee -- come up and chat about ozone, mercury, global warming . . . that sort of thing. Committee aides had been trying to get dates in April when Johnson might be able to testify. But the EPA folks didn't seem to want to commit to a specific time.

Imagine Boxer's joy at discovering last week that Johnson couldn't make it because he was off -- with 11 staff members (including seven -- that's seven -- advance personnel) and a security detail on a two-week jaunt to Australia, at the invitation of U.S. Ambassador Robert McCallum, an old Bush pal from Skull and Bones days at Yale.

The EPA estimates that the trip will cost about $280,000, approximately half of the agency's travel budget for the year.

In February 2007, McCallum wanted only Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water, to come over. It was at a time when Australia's conservative government was solidly behind President Bush's policies, in Iraq and on other matters, including the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States and Australia declined to sign.

The first thing Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did after he was elected five months ago was to sign the accord, so it seems most unlikely that the Aussies are looking to strategize with outgoing Bush administration folks, who are hardly in long-range planning mode themselves.

But the EPA, responding Monday to Boxer's questions about the trip, said "the embassy proposed that early April, 2008 would be an opportune time for a visit," especially in light of "our ongoing environmental collaboration" and because of the November elections. The new government's top environmental folks will be meeting with Johnson, the EPA told Boxer.

Curiously, though, McCallum's "invitation" says he is "delighted to hear that you are considering an April visit to Australia" and notes that he wants to "encourage you to come."

The schedule itself shows the importance of the trip: "A visit to the Melbourne Eastern Water Plant," then to the "working Otway carbon sequestration site." There's the "Queensland Territory's Bundamba advanced water treatment" operation, plus a "tentative farm visit" to look at pesticide usage, and a trip to the "Westcliffe Ventilation Air Methane Project" as part of a review of emissions-reduction efforts. These are critical meetings.

And there will be lots of very important meetings with Australian officials and private-sector folks in Victoria and New South Wales and Queensland Territory. Unclear if a visit to the Great Barrier Reef is in order.

These trips to the other side of the globe are especially arduous, involving long air travel and brutal jet lag. But Johnson clearly feels it's important to go the extra few thousand miles. It's his third long voyage in the last 14 months. He was in India early last year. Then, Loop fans may remember, Johnson didn't make it to the big U.N.-sponsored climate change conference in Bali because he had to go to Beijing to meet with officials there.

Well, however grueling the trips may be, sure beats getting slapped around again by Boxer. The weather -- sunny, with temperatures in the mid-70s -- sounds just lovely, mate.

How to Play Those Photos

A few weeks ago, some folks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development were wondering whether the disappearance of the Secretary Alphonso Jackson photo display at the north entrance to headquarters was a sign of the times. A signal that perhaps Jackson was on his way out?


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