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11th-Hour Additions to Funding Bill Trouble Environmentalists

November 19, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As Congress raced Thursday to cobble together a massive bill to fund much of the federal government and wrap up its 2004 session, influential Republican senators tried to attach several industry-friendly measures to the package.

One would exempt large livestock and dairy farms from some environmental laws. Another would provide billions of dollars for Army Corps of Engineers water projects. A third -- which would have exempted pesticide users from Endangered Species Act rules -- was stripped from the bill when it was deemed so controversial that it might delay the entire spending bill, which lawmakers hope to vote on by this weekend.

These so-called riders can become law without the scrutiny and give-and-take of the normal legislative process.

Members of Congress frequently try to attach controversial or pet measures to big spending bills in the hope that opponents will be unwilling to jeopardize the legislation that provides funds for basic government services. The technique is particularly effective at the end of the year, when lawmakers are eager to go home for the holidays.

"This is a pork-barrel extravaganza," said David Conrad, senior water resources researcher at National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group. "It's one of the worst I've ever seen, and I've been doing this 25 years."

Environmentalists expressed concerns about several other measures that appeared likely to be attached to the big spending bill even though they had not been debated on the floor of both the House and Senate.

One would authorize a land exchange to allow oil drilling on what is now part of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Another would lift a wilderness designation from Georgia's Cumberland Island, opening the largest undeveloped island on the East Coast to commercial development.

Still others would allow commercial fish hatcheries and stocking in protected wilderness areas, national parks and wildlife areas in Alaska, and exclude grazing permit renewals in national forests from the need for environmental reviews.

As of late Thursday, members of Congress and their staffs were busy negotiating which Corps of Engineers water projects would be funded in the Water Resources Development Act. The House passed a $4-billion version of the bill, and a Senate committee drafted an almost $18-billion version.

"If we get it done, we can get it in," said Marty Hall, deputy staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Environmentalists said they feared that whatever package was produced in the closed-door process would not include the reforms that were necessary to prevent these projects from damaging the environment.

"We believe Congress should not fund a bunch of new projects unless and until reforms can be put in place that can ensure that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth and that the corps will not continue to do major damage to the environment that we'll have to pay for again and again," Conrad said.

One of the projects on the list was the restoration of the Louisiana coastline, which is losing a football field worth of land every hour largely because of corps projects that leveed the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico and caused major deterioration of coastal wetlands, he said.

One of the most controversial projects on the list is a $1.7-billion expansion of the locks on the upper Mississippi River. Grain growers want the expansion, but three National Research Council panels have criticized the corps for failing to justify the expansion.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), in a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said it would be "fiscally irresponsible" to spend billions of dollars of projects without adequate consideration of the costs and benefits for taxpayers.

But David Schwietert, director of Associated General Contractors of America, who has been lobbying for the projects, said he believed their chances were "pretty good." Adding them to the spending package would avoid the "hang-ups" over policy issues that prevented them from passing earlier, he said.

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) had been jockeying to add a provision that would exempt "biological processes" at agriculture operations from requirements of the Superfund law and the Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act, according to his spokesman, Dan Whiting.

The senator was trying to protect large dairy and livestock businesses from lawsuits now in the courts that could require them to publicly report emissions of toxic air pollutants such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from their manure pits.

"What we don't want to do is subject these farms to undue regulations," Whiting said.

But Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, an environmental justice law firm with offices in San Francisco and the San Joaquin Valley, said the poor communities his offices represent need the information.

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