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Controversy Plagues Positive EPA Report

Cleanup efforts pay off, data show, but deletions in global warming part get more attention.

June 24, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The nation's air and drinking water have become cleaner and its dumpsites less toxic over the last decade or more, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday in a report that critics said was compromised by political interference.

"Where we have data, we tend to see either environmental improvement or that we are holding our own in the face of a growing economy and population," said Paul Gilman, the EPA's chief scientist.

Assessing up to 30 years of government efforts to clean up the environment, the draft report was overshadowed by a controversy over its global warming section.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Christie Whitman has said she deleted the discussion of global warming after White House aides sought to tone it down and she decided the result would be "pablum."

The document merely stated: "This report does not attempt to address the complexities of this issue." It referred readers to the Internet site of the U.S. Global Climate Research Program for more information.

"This report is important, not for what it says, but for what it doesn't say," said Daniel Becker, director of global warming and energy programs for the Sierra Club. "The report is tainted by the administration's efforts to subvert the science and substitute the views of the oil industry."

With the exception of a section on lead, there are very few references to environmental hazards that are particularly threatening to children. The report is also silent on the growing evidence of harm to wildlife from pesticides and industrial chemicals and says nothing about scientific concern that human hormone and neurological systems may be vulnerable to the same pollutants.

The global warming controversy isn't likely to disappear when Whitman steps down as EPA chief later this month. The agency now plans to solicit public comments before making the report final, and environmentalists say they will try to force the Bush administration to acknowledge that global warming is an environmental problem.

"By issuing the report as a draft, it really pushes it to the new administrator whether they will stand up to the White House and reinsert the information on global warming," said Jeremy Symons, a climate change specialist with the National Wildlife Federation.

The original report had concluded that "climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment," according to an internal EPA memo.

There is general agreement in the scientific community that the Earth's average temperature is rising.

Most scientists link global warming to such human activities as burning oil, gas and coal, which produces carbon dioxide and other gases that build up in the atmosphere and trap heat at the surface.

Not all the indicators cited by the agency were positive. The EPA found that about 45% of the U.S. population lives in areas that at times have unhealthy air, that coastal waters are in fair to poor condition, and that sprawl is consuming undeveloped acreage at an increasing rate.

The report noted an "association" between pollution and illness but stopped short of asserting a direct cause-and-effect relationship. It noted that U.S. life expectancy was improving and death rates for cancer, heart disease and stroke were declining.

On air quality, the report found that emissions of six main pollutants had declined by 25% in the last 30 years.

As for water quality, 94% of Americans are in communities that meet health-based drinking water standards, an increase from 79% in 1993, the report said. But it called the condition of fresh water a source of concern. The percentage of fresh water that might yield contaminated fish has been creeping up.

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Times staff writer Marla Cone, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.

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