Doctored EPA Environment Report Raises Questions

WASHINGTON, DC, June 24, 2003 (ENS) – The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Draft Report on the Environment,” released Monday by Administrator Christie Whitman, is billed as the first complete national picture of U.S. environmental quality and human health.

But the document has stirred controversy and puzzled environmentalists, legislators and analysts who question the depth of the research and the omission of climate and water information available to the agency that paints a different picture of the health of the environment across the United States.

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman introduces the draft report. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The report was commissioned in November 2001 by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Whitman, who leaves office Friday.

It is intended as the initial step in EPA’s Environmental Indicators Initiative, which seeks to develop better indicators that the agency can use to measure and track the state of the environment and make better decisions in the future.

The report is divided into five core chapters. The first three deal with the current state of air, water and land in the United States and the stresses that can affect those environments.

The final two chapters present indicators on human health and ecological conditions. The report includes a technical document that provides an accounting of the scientific data gathered from more than 30 other federal agencies, departments, states, tribes and nongovernmental organizations.

“This Draft Report on the Environment documents real gains in providing a cleaner, healthier and safer environment,” said Whitman.

“More importantly," she said, "it begins an important national dialogue on how we can improve our ability to assess the nation’s environmental quality and human health, and how we can use that knowledge to make improvements. This report is an important tool that will be useful for generations to come.”

The lengthy report paints a positive picture of the nation’s recent efforts to come to grips with environmental problems.

Air pollution has declined 25 percent over the past 30 years, and it declined while the country experienced huge increases in population, gross domestic product, and vehicle miles traveled, the report says.

It says American drinking water is safer than it has been in 30 years. In 2002, 94 percent of Americans were served by drinking water systems that meet "healthy standards." Releases of toxic chemicals have declined by 48 percent since 1988, and waste management efforts have improved.

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Employees of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on a fun run near Golden, Colorado. (Photo courtesy NREL)
The health of the American public is getting better, the report says. People are living longer than ever before. Infant mortality has dropped to the lowest level ever recorded in the United States.

Despite the good news, the report says much needs to be done, noting that more than 133 million people, almost half of all Americans, live in areas that at times have unhealthy levels of air pollution. It also calls for additional data to answer questions about the links between some environmental pollutants and health effects.

But many already feel that important climate information was left out of the report in the first place.

The National Wildlife Federation has published an internal memorandum showing that the White House's insistence on alterations to the global climate change section of the draft report prompted the EPA to delete the section to avoid responsibility for publishing information that is not scientifically credible.

“The administration must be held to account for its stewardship of the environment,” said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “This document provides disturbing evidence of the administration’s readiness to reject or spin scientific findings on crucial environmental issues that do not suit the White House’s political agenda.”

Upon reading about the memo, Senator Jim Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont and the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and other legislators sent an open letter to President George W. Bush asking for all drafts of the EPA report as well as all related comments prepared by government agencies.

“We request a list of all participants involved in review of the document, including all administration officials and entities outside the administration,” the legislators' letter said. “Furthermore, we ask that appropriate actions be taken regarding those responsible for doctoring this report.”

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Coal fired power plant in New Mexico emitting the heat trapping greenhouse gases responsible for climate change (Photo courtesy New Mexico Solar Energy Association)
The White House’s unwillingness to include all data undermines the report’s conclusions, said Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It is notable for what is not there,” Wetstone told ENS.

“There is a section on global issues that does not say a word about the most important or serious challenge we have ever faced - global warming. That detracts from credibility of the whole effort,” Wetstone said.

“It doesn’t deal with the real environmental problems. The pattern here is to ignore science, ignore law, and ignore public opinion,” he said. “It goes where the worst elements of corporate America want to go.”

Joan Mulhern, the legislative counsel for the nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice, has read the section on water quality. And while she says the Clean Water Act has been successful, the report leaves out basic information the EPA compiled.

“That’s not to say there aren’t successes,” she told ENS. “But to try and paint a picture that things are fine or not so bad by leaving out the most basic data makes it more like a glorified press release.”

Mulhern explained that every state is required to produce biannual water quality inventories. “The purpose is to determine every other year where states are in achieving water quality goals. It’s a reliable indicator of where water is getting cleaner or dirtier,” Mulhern said.

“Those 2002 inventories show that, for the first time, our waters are getting dirtier," she said. "This is left out of the report. It mentions the reports but neglects to include data from the most recent report.”

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Toxic sediment from a wood mill pollutes Keene Creek near Duluth, Minnesota (Photo by Pat Collins courtesy Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)
When it comes to wetlands, the report does contain data that shows that, though we lose more than we gain, the rate of wetlands loss is slowing.

“Not surprisingly, it does not include Bush policies because the administration has abandoned the policy,” Mulhern said. “The overall point is that this is trying to present a misleading picture about status of the nation’s waters. Besides not discussing Bush administration policies, the EPA’s only data on the status of the nation’s water is missing from the report.”

Mulhern says that the administration is clever about what it leaves in and what it omits. “But unless you follow these issues closely, how would one know that there are these reports out there that are ignored?”

The report not only completely ignores the dangers of global warming but also fails to address the common sense solutions to protect America's clean air and clean water,” Ed Hopkins, the director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program, said in a statement.

“The EPA's report comes as the Bush administration is weakening the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and slowing down cleanup of toxic waste sites,” Hopkins said. “This report just looks backward when we also need to be looking forward to protect our air, water and land.”

Wetstone notes that the EPA compiled a lot of data, but that most precede the current administration. “They’re trying to tell a feel good story about trends. The reality is that the laws have worked and have been a success.”

“But the infrastructure that makes it work is at risk because of Bush administration polices,” Wetstone said. “This may well serve as a baseline against which we can measure the destructive impact of the administration’s environmental policies.”