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The White House Plays Dirty With the Environment

Rollbacks of air, water and land pollution rules are taking heavy tolls

November 24, 2003|Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

It's beyond serious dispute that the Bush White House is dismantling 30 years of bipartisan environmental progress, in defiance of law, scientific understanding, popular sentiment and common sense.

The Bush administration's horrific environmental reputation isn't just a bad rap. The environmental gains that Americans have enjoyed for years prove that vigorous protection of our natural resources is both effective and consistent with economic prosperity. The administration's destructive rollbacks threaten decades of progress, and they have already begun to take their toll.

After three years of President Bush's policies, American waterways are getting dirtier, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, for the first time since passage of the Clean Water Act.

Administration policies have driven automobile fuel efficiencies to their lowest levels in decades.

Superfund cleanups for millions of Americans in tainted communities have been halted because the White House is allowing polluters to escape replenishing the bankrupt fund.

Any prospect of dealing seriously with global warming evaporated when the administration abandoned the Kyoto treaty, suppressed more than a dozen major scientific reports, including the global warming chapter in an EPA environment report, and punished and blackballed scientists who reported their findings honestly, among them Robert Watson, head of a United Nations scientific panel on global warming.

The Bush administration is trying to eliminate Clean Water Act protection for more than 60% of the nation's stream miles and most of the nation's wetlands.

If successful, this would let factory farms escape responsibility for catastrophic water and air pollution caused by millions of tons of untreated animal waste and allow industrial polluters to foul our aquifers and drinking water.

Recently, EPA lawyers announced that they would drop prosecution and criminal investigations directed against 50 power plants whose illegal emissions were major causes of mercury pollution that made fish unsafe to eat in 28 states, of asthma attacks that disabled one in every four inner-city black children, of acid rain that sterilized Adirondacks lakes and destroyed Eastern forests and of air pollution that killed 30,000 Americans each year -- conclusions of the National Academy of Science.

Those utilities donated millions to Bush, who repaid the investment by gutting the Clean Air Act, discarding the provision that required the oldest and dirtiest power plants and refineries in the United States to install state-of-the-art pollution controls when they expanded or modernized.

The administration also rewarded oil and gas companies by opening the nation's pristine areas -- including Wyoming's Jack Morrow Hills, Utah's Red Rock Country, Colorado's Vermillion Basin and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front -- to road building, pipeline construction and a host of other industrial activities associated with development.

Other proposals eliminate the fundamental requirement that forest management protect wildlife, reduce public involvement in forest planning and scale back long-standing requirements for environmental reviews and public participation in highway construction and offshore oil development.

Bush's Department of Interior is the first not to voluntarily list a single species as endangered. Worse, the Interior Department has used fraudulent science in attempting to de-list protected animals like the grizzly bear, trumpeter swan, Florida panther and desert fisher.

Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of other examples touching nearly every corner of environmental law and involving actions by every major federal agency responsible for environment programs. That includes the Department of Defense, which has just obtained from Congress sweeping exemptions to the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts. These exemptions could damage whole populations of threatened species.

Meanwhile, fines collected for violating environmental laws have dropped by more than half since the Bush administration took power, and last year, EPA's two most senior enforcement officials resigned, citing the administration's refusal to enforce environmental protections as their reason.

All this while, in the Senate, legislators have been debating perhaps the most venal Bush initiative to date, the $145-billion energy bill boondoggle -- labeled "No Lobbyist Left Behind" legislation by Sen. John McCain -- that would have a widespread, devastating effect on the environment.

At a time when our government should be addressing critical problems such as global warming, sprawl and the loss of wildlife and open spaces, the Bush administration has put polluters first by raising the standard of living for a few privileged Americans while lowering the quality of life for the rest of us.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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