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Schwarzenegger Sows Doubt Among State Environmentalists

Recent remark, later clarified by aides, about the possibility of scrapping Cal/EPA only bolsters skepticism.

October 03, 2003|Miguel Bustillo And Marla Cone | Times Staff Writers

When Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested this week that he would consider eliminating the California Environmental Protection Agency to cut government waste, he cemented what has emerged as a near-universal distrust of his gubernatorial candidacy among conservationists.

Schwarzenegger has made a concerted play for the environmental vote, tapping his wife's cousin, prominent conservation attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., to help fashion his platform. His campaign pronouncements more closely match the environmental views of the man he wants to replace in Tuesday's recall election, Democrat Gray Davis, than those of his fellow Republican, President Bush.

Yet he has failed to sway a single major environmental organization to his side, and most conservationists continue to view the actor, famous for driving a gas-guzzling Hummer, with deep skepticism.

At the same time Schwarzenegger has pledged to strengthen environmental protections, he has also promised to reduce regulations on businesses and streamline the state bureaucracy to better mirror the federal government.

Many conservationists, who are waging war against the environmental policies of the Bush administration, see those objectives as contradictory. They fear that if Schwarzenegger is elected, he will modify the state's trend-setting environmental policies, the toughest in the nation on problems such as air pollution.

"He simply cannot be trusted to resist special-interest influence or the appeals of the Bush administration to weaken California environmental protections," said Carl Zichella, regional director of the Sierra Club.

Schwarzenegger's environmental supporters dismiss the attacks on their candidate as bald partisanship. Terry Tamminen, the executive director of the Santa Monica-based group Environment Now who helped draft the actor's environmental platform, defended Schwarzenegger, saying that Democratic groups have twisted the candidate's vague words about ending duplication in state bureaucracy into something evil.

The remark in question was made Monday in the Fresno suburb of Clovis. A farmer asked Schwarzenegger why the state needed Cal/EPA when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already regulates many of the same things.

"What you just talked about is the waste -- overlapping agencies. They cost a fortune," Schwarzenegger said. "We have to strip that down and get rid of some of those agencies."

Schwarzenegger's aides quickly sought to clarify the remark. They stated a day later that the candidate strongly supported Cal/EPA, which was founded by his campaign co-chairman, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, but wanted to cut functions that repeated things other agencies already did.

Despite the explanation, environmental groups expressed alarm -- and spoke out at events organized by the Davis campaign. They said Schwarzenegger clearly did not understand the role of Cal/EPA, an umbrella agency formed in part to coordinate the work of existing state agencies regulating air, water and waste. They also noted that many of the state environmental agencies that industry groups deride as duplicative are more aggressive than their federal counterparts.

"Frankly, he's scaring the heck out of me," David Allgood of the California League of Conservation Voters said during a conference call with Davis campaign officials Tuesday. "If he is saying California law should be as protective as federal law, that is a rollback."

Industry groups said they would not expect Schwarzenegger to diminish environmental laws -- only to listen to them more than Davis has done the last two years when considering future ones.

"Manufacturers are not looking to roll back the clock and return pollution laws to the 1950s," said Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn., which this week endorsed Schwarzenegger -- its first gubernatorial endorsement in 85 years. "What we're looking for is some balance. We're not going to oppose every environmental regulation. What we're looking for is some middle ground."

Over the last few decades, California has adopted some of the world's most stringent environmental regulations, particularly for air pollution. From catalytic converters in the 1960s to battery-powered cars and natural-gas buses in the 1990s, the state has driven the development of new pollution-fighting technology through its regulations.

California has led the way in part because its problems have been more acute than those of other parts of the country. Smog in the Los Angeles Basin is more often than not worse than in any other metropolitan area.

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