Bush, the anti-environment president | VailDaily.com

Bush, the anti-environment president

Alan Braunholtz

President Bush is well on his way to compiling the worst environmental record in history. This would be more palatable if they were somewhat open about it.

No such luck, these guys are smart and know the environment is a popular issue. Public debates are messy, time consuming and can lead to all sorts of bad PR. Witness the resistance in public and Congress to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Rather than a public assault on the rules protecting our environment, a la Newt Gingrich, Bush and company are quietly undermining all they can behind bureaucratic closed doors and secret out of court settlements.

For example, how many people know that for the first time in 30 years the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act are being weakened? These are bedrock environmental laws from the ’70s that more than any other are responsible for safeguarding the health of Americans. By changing the definition of what is a “wetland” and what constitutes “waters of the United States,” 20% of the nation’s swamps, marshes and ponds and 60% of our rivers, streams and lakes will be removed from protection. All without any congressional debate.

The Clean Air Act is being undermined by the so-called “Clear Skies” initiative. Clear Skies is touted as a reducer of air pollution. There is a strange logic at work here. Clear Skies will only reduce pollution if the current laws of the Clean Air Act are ignored. Enforcing the present Clean Air Act’s standards and deadlines would prevent 42 million more tons of pollutants compared to Clear Skies by 2020.

Lobbying from coal-powered utilities, the major source of mercury poison in our atmosphere, weakened Clear Skies further. Clinton had a 2007 deadline for limiting mercury emissions, Clear Skies initially rolled it back to 2010 and now it will be 2018 before any reductions are required.

Interestingly, an EPA report in May 2002 found that 8% of child bearing age women had high blood levels of mercury. The White House Office of Management and Budget suppressed this until someone leaked it to the press in 2003.

A key element of the Clean Air Act was new source review. In 1977, Congress decided to allow polluting industrial plants a chance to clean up over time. When a plant expanded or modernized, new pollution equipment should be added. This being expensive, industry tried to avoid it by calling modernization and expansion routine maintenance. No one expected that 30 years later some of these same dirty plants would still be going.

Under Clinton, the EPA started to say enough is enough and you have to clean up. Predictably, this stalled under industry-friendly Bush and the rules have changed. Plants can now upgrade one-fifth of their facility without installing any emission-cutting devices, even if the upgrade increases emissions. It isn’t clear if there is a time limit between upgrades. This saves utility, oil companies and others billions of dollars. Expect your child’s asthma attacks to increase, though.

Our federal government is also thumbing its nose at California’s right to maintain its own clean air. California’s clean air agency has a clean fleet law for LA that requires operators of buses, taxis and trash trucks to buy cleaner-burning vehicles when they replace or add new ones. Less pollution and a stimulus for cleaner technologies sounds good unless you are a selfish dinosaur like the Western States Petroleum Association, which is suing all the way to the Supreme Court to break this law. Never one to stand on the sidelines where the oil industry is concerned, our government is backing the petroleum association.

By installing ex-industry leaders and lobbyists to head all the government departments, which are supposed to oversee and regulate those industries, the administration has set up a bureaucracy committed to circumventing and dismantling any environmental or consumer-friendly laws that get in the way of business. The nation’s top forestry official, Mark Rey spent 20 years working for the American Paper Institute and National Forest Products Association. One of the rules he is pushing would allow more old-growth logging in Sequoia National Monument.

J. Stephen Griles is the deputy secretary of the interior. He oversees mining. Before working for us, he worked as a lobbyist for the National Mining Association. To allay conflict of interest fears, he signed a note promising not to take part in issues concerning his old clients.

Since then he has sent bullying memos to EPA officials telling them to streamline mining approval in Wyoming’s Powder Basin and enable mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal is an extremely destructive process that dumps all the rock above a seam and any other waste into the neighboring valley and stream, smothering it. Appalachia is losing thousands of acres of woodlands and all those exotic salamanders. Griles has met frequently with coal and mining executives, even giving a speech to the Wet Virginia Coal Association promising to “fix the federal rules very soon on water and spoil placement”.”Since that speech, the few environmental rules protecting the land from spoil placement were relaxed. Encouraging industry to file a lawsuit against a government rule and then settling out of court looks to be another favorite tactic to erode environmental protections as quietly as possible. These settlements occur behind closed doors with no public scrutiny or input. Bureaucrats like Griles and Rey represent the government, and the settlement often ends up giving industry everything they asked for.

Under these “you sue, we’ll settle” lawsuits, Utah has lost millions of acres of wilderness protection, the government is giving the states abandoned rights of way through national parks and wilderness areas, endangered species protections are being reviewed, and a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone was reversed. All without public comment or congressional approval.

Perhaps more scary than this covert assault on the laws protecting the environment is the effect government secrecy and deception has on democracy. This administration appears to have the principles of open government and right to privacy confused. While happily passing laws exposing the public to more surveillance of their private lives, they’re conducting business in private, obstructing Freedom of Information requests as a matter of principle, and denying access to public records.

To quote from Justice William O Douglas, “a democracy cannot function unless the people are permitted to know what their government is up to.” It appears the Bush administration has no intention of explaining honestly what it is up to where our air, water and environment are concerned.

To quote President Bush himself: “That’s the interesting thing about being the president. (I) don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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