Conservationists Warn Bush Will Dismantle Safeguards

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - Conservation and environmental groups are bracing themselves for what they say will be an unprecedented assault on environmental laws in the new Congress and throughout the next two years of the Bush administration.

Across the board on issues of clean air, clean water and natural resource conservation, the Bush administration has already demonstrated its willingness to override public opinion and public health concerns to weaken environmental regulations, according to a panel of environmental experts speaking at a press briefing today in Washington.

With Congress now controlled by the Republicans, the threat of further rollbacks is "more far reaching and more destructive than any that have preceded it," said Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Bush

President George W. Bush (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy The White House)
"In the absence of any clear, aggressive Congressional oversight we will see a more vigorous, escalated attack that includes new efforts to promote more air pollution, more water pollution, more clear cutting in the forests and more drilling, mining and logging on public lands," Wetstone said.

"These actions are broadly out of step with the overwhelming consensus of the American public, and it is quite evident that this administration is fully aware of that," he said.

The panelists cited changes to forest management plans and to clean air regulations that have already been announced as mere harbingers of what is to come. This administration puts out rule changes in virtual secrecy and willingly lets industry groups shape its policies, according to the panelists.

"The sweep of the Bush administration's assault on our clean air protections is breathtaking," said John Walke, director of NRDC's Clean Air Program. "And I mean literally breathtaking. More than 175 million Americans live in areas of the country that are so smoggy that they violate federal health standards. The Bush administration is taking us backwards, not forwards in trying to solve those serious health problems."

Walke noted that the administration's rule changes to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program were announced the Friday before Thanksgiving at a briefing where cameras were not allowed. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Todd Whitman did not even attend the briefing, Walke said.

"This was the most sweeping rollback of the statute in its 30 year history," Walke said, adding that on that same day the administration also proposed broad changes to the regulation of 10 toxic chemicals.

According to Walke, EPA insiders told him that these were announced purposely on the same day so as to "jam environmental groups in order to make it more difficult for the public to offer meaningful comment on those actions within the 30 day comment period."

"This is a cynical and calculated way to carry out one's agenda," Walke said.

This approach was not just used to announce the changes to clean air regulations, according to the panel.

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Clear cut near Sagehen Creek, Truckee, California (Photo USGS)
"On the eve of Thanksgiving the administration proposed a sweeping rollback of basic forest protections that have enjoyed bi-partisan support for over 25 years," said Robert Dewey, vice president of the Defenders of Wildlife.

"The Bush administration's approach is anti-science and these rollbacks have been anti-public participation, and they are clearly pro-logging industry," Dewey said.

The administration's close ties to industry are also likely to manifest in broad changes to the Clean Water Act, according to Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for EarthJustice. Elimination of Clean Water Act protections for the vast majority of the nation's stream miles and wetlands acres is proposed, Mulhern said, adding that she expects the administration will slip out its advanced notice of proposed rulemaking sometime in the next two weeks.

"This is the most significant threat to the Clean Water Act since it was passed 30 years ago," Mulhern said.

"It is a water polluters payback plan," added Julie Sibbing, wetlands legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). "This is a plan to across the board eliminate entire categories of waters from protection under the Clean Water Act."

It could remove some 60 percent of waterways from federal protection under the Clean Water Act, Sibbing said, and the most at risk are streams that do not flow year round.

Some 30 percent of nation's wetlands would be threatened by this rulemaking, Sibbing added, and these are areas that support the vast majority of breeding waterfowl in the United States.

This threat comes on the heels of other actions by the Bush administration that have already been taken or that are pending that also reduce Clean Water Act protections, Mulhern said. Earlier this year the Bush administration changed a 25 year old Clean Water Act regulation that allows coal mining companies and others to dump solid waste into waterways.

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Industrial pollution, Green Bay, Wisconsin (Photo courtesy EPA)
Rather than fighting for increased environmental protection and conservation, environmentalists are poised to simply defend the existing regulatory regimes.

"We will be using all our resources to keep from moving backwards and that is a tragedy," Wetstone said.

Many of the Bush administration's environmental policies have come through the rulemaking process and with Congress now in Republican control, environmentalists fear that Congressional oversight of these rules will also suffer.

There are some signs that this may not always be the case, as several House Republicans recently called for scientific review of the Bush forest policy rules.

But many new Congressional committee leaders are openly pro-industry and hostile to environmental regulations, the panelists said. There is specific concern that the Senate leadership will aggressively try to weaken protections of the nation's water, air and natural resources.

"Across the board, in some of the key leadership positions in the Senate, we are seeing people with very low lifetime records of supporting environmental protection," Dewey said.

The new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, Senator James Inhofe, is "one of the most aggressive detractors of environmental protection in the history of the Senate," Wetstone said.

The Environment and Public Works committee has oversight of programs within the Department of Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

Inhofe

Senator James Inhofe (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, has "been very open in he sees his role as a champion of the oil companies and has said that publicly in the past," Wetstone said. "It will be a tough time at that committee."

"This is the first time since our major environmental laws were passed three decades ago that someone with a truly anti-environmental record is going to be chairing that committee," added NWF's Sibbing. "It is going to be a big change on clean air, clean water and other environmental issues to have someone who has shown a hostility to environmental protection chairing the committee."

Panelists also expressed concern about Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico who will take charge of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. Domenici has embraced the need for more nuclear power as well as further oil and gas production, specifically within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The debate over opening ANWR for oil drilling has been a recent mainstay in American politics, with environmentalists, Democrats and some Republicans having successfully defeated past efforts.

"It is tedious every year to go back and defend ANWR," said Debbie Sease, legislative director for Sierra Club. "The good news is we are very well prepared, and the American public knows what is at stake here."

This issue offers a tidy example of what environmentalists fear going into the next Congress and the next two years of the Bush administration.

"More than ever America needs an energy policy and energy future that is less dependent on oil," added Sease. "But we aren't likely to craft the kind of energy future we need over the next two years. The question is if we can defend against the Bush administration's energy policies."

Cutting through the public's concern over possible war with Iraq as well as homeland security issues will be difficult, the panelists said, and it is too early to say how strong their allies in Congress will be on these issues. Educating the public on natural resources issues remains an integral part of the process, the panelists said.

"When the administration is aware that the public is paying attention, they will feel some deterrents to moving forward here," Wetstone said. "That is a tough hurdle, but that is the job we face. We will hold the Congress responsible for being a restraining influence on this administration."