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   How Bush Spent His Summer Vacation: Undermining Environmental Protections

COMMENTARY:

How Bush Spent His Summer Vacation: Undermining Environmental Protections

by Robert Perks

August was a terrible month for environmentalists. Here’s why.

President Bush spent most of August vacationing at his Texas ranch but, unfortunately, his administration kept busy. The following list summarizes how the Bush administration spent its summer vacation undermining environmental protections. Check out NRDC's "Bush Record"

8/03/02: EPA fails to meet pesticides review deadline: The Environmental Protection Agency falsely claimed that it has met a legal deadline for reassessing the safety of pesticides as mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. The FQPA requires the EPA to complete safety reviews of two-thirds of all pesticide tolerances (individual uses of pesticides)—about 6,000 tolerances—by this date. Under the FQPA, Congress required the EPA to look at the worst pesticides first when reviewing tolerances, and the agency has repeatedly promised to do so. Five years ago, the EPA identified the most dangerous pesticides and promised to take action on the most toxic of those chemicals—the organophosphates—by 1999. The EPA today claims it completed its reassessment of 6,000 tolerances. In fact, the agency did not completely review all 6,000 tolerances, many of the pesticides it reviewed were already off the market or rarely used, and it failed to review the worst pesticides first.

"EPA is using Enron-like accounting to claim that it has met the mandate of the law," said NRDC attorney Erik Olsen. "As this latest deadline passes with little agency action on the most toxic and highest-priority pesticides, EPA's delay only benefits the chemical industry at the expense of our children's health."

8/07/02: EPA rolls back Clean Water Act's water cleanup program: This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act, yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with a rule to cripple the Act's primary program for cleaning up the nation's more than 20,000 polluted rivers, lakes and estuaries.

For three decades, national water pollution control efforts have been guided by the fundamental goals of the Clean Water Act: that all rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters be safe for swimming and boating and any fish caught should be safe to eat. Although progress has been made, today, close to half of our assessed waters are still considered impaired for human or aquatic life use. The EPA's recent National Coastal Condition report acknowledged that the overall condition of our coastal waters is only fair to poor. The key provision of the Clean Water Act governing the cleanup of these polluted waters is the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, which requires states and the EPA to identify polluted waterways, rank them for priority attention, and then develop pollution limits for each water body.

Despite the law, the EPA and states largely failed to clean up waterways under the program until a wave of citizen lawsuits forced them to begin doing so. Over the last few years, Americans' demand for clean water succeeded in generating momentum to improve implementation of the clean up program. Now, the Bush administration hopes to derail the citizen-led effort to finally cleanup the nation's polluted waters.

In keeping with the Bush administration's disregard for mandatory regulations and strict enforcement, the EPA's proposed rule would stress "voluntary efforts" and possibly the establishment of a system in which states could trade pollution "credits." By making it easier for states to remove waters from the list of those needing to be cleaned up and making it more difficult for additional waterways to be added to that list, the new rule would ensure that America's dirty waters remain polluted—and perhaps become more so—for decades to come.

8/10/02: White House looks to sink environmental law: Coming soon to an ocean near you: unfettered waste dumping, commercial fishing, oil and gas construction, and military maneuvers. These and other harmful activities could become rampant if the Bush administration succeeds in lifting environmental review provisions as they apply to vast tracts of oceans under U.S. control.

In the administration's legal fight with NRDC over the use of Navy sonar technology, the Justice Department is arguing that the landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1970—the Magna Carta of environmental law—does not extend beyond U.S. territorial waters three miles beyond the nation's shorelines. If the court agrees, then federal agencies would no longer be required to review the environmental effects of their projects, opening up the oceans to a host of unregulated activities that could damage and destroy marine life. NRDC is challenging the administration's argument and asserting that in addition to territorial waters, the law covers all activity within the nation's so-called exclusive economic zone. Stretching 200 miles off shore, this zone covers more than 1 million square miles off all American coasts, including those of Alaska and Hawaii.

"It's quite alarming that the White House is seeking to impose the Navy's restrictive view of the statute regardless of the implications on a wide range of practices that could pollute our coasts and harm wildlife," said NRDC attorney Andrew Wetzler.

8/12/02: Bush administration allows energy development in national monument: For the first time ever, energy development activities will be permitted outside already-leased areas at a national monument, courtesy of the Bush administration. The Bureau of Land Management has decided that companies can expand oil and gas exploration beyond the boundaries of their existing leases at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado. With about 85 percent of the 164,000 monument already leased for energy exploration, the BLM approved a seismic exploration project on nearly 1,900 acres of unleased monument land that was scheduled to begin in a few days, but a federal judge halted the project when environmental groups filed suit.

Environmentalists say further exploration would damage sensitive biological and archeological areas and set a dangerous precedent of increased energy development on prized public lands.

8/13/02: EPA cedes Idaho cleanup authority to state: In a strange and unprecedented move, the Environmental Protection Agency ceded control of the cleanup plan for Idaho's highly polluted Coeur d'Alene Basin to state, local and tribal officials. For more than a century, mining waste from the Silver Valley washed down the Coeur d'Alene River into Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River, and from there into Lake Roosevelt, where fish have shown elevated levels of mercury and other toxins. The cleanup of the area, one of the nation's largest Superfund sites, has long been a contentious issue, with locals fearing that extensive federal involvement would create negative publicity and harm the local economy. The transfer of authority means that a new state-dominated commission will oversee the EPA-authored, $359-million plan to clean up pollution across a watershed larger than Rhode Island.

Environmentalists and some local residents voiced skepticism about the unusual agreement because the same state officials who downplayed the need for a cleanup in the past will now decide how to proceed.

8/15/02: Bush skipping U.N. Earth Summit: A decade ago the first President Bush attended a world summit on the environment in Rio de Janeiro, where he agreed to tackle problems in forestry, biodiversity and climate change. Unlike his father, President George W. Bush did not attend the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa. President Bush's failure to attend the Johannesburg Summit, on top of his rejection last year of the Kyoto climate treaty, add to questions in the environmental community about the administration's lackluster approach to global environmental challenges.

White House officials said they would resist any changes to international agreements on trade and development, and oppose any new targets or specific aid figures. And although the Bush administration is offering an aid package worth nearly $4.5 billion, the bulk of the funds will be shifted from existing efforts and given a new name.

8/19/02: Bush administration backing away from California coastal protection: A proposal to designate one of the last undeveloped stretches of Southern California's coast as a national seashore is in danger of being scuttled by the Bush administration. Since 1999, the National Park Service has been studying the feasibility of permanently protecting 46 miles of coastline just north of Santa Barbara from the threat of urban sprawl. The plan, which involves a federal land purchase in order to create a new national seashore (to be called Gaviota National Seashore), is bitterly opposed by property rights activists and real estate developers who fear possible restrictions on the use of their land. At a public meeting on the proposal, Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary of the Interior Department, dashed environmentalists' hopes when she expressed a preference for private land ownership over federal control, and acknowledged that "land acquisition is not a priority of this administration." Previously, Interior officials showed interest in the proposal to protect the dramatic cliffs, remote beaches and terraced grasslands by designating 200,000 acres as a national seashore. Scarlett said the administration is retreating in the face of feedback received from local landowners during the last 13 months.

Besides designating the land as a national seashore, the study considers no action, enhancing state and local protections and setting up a national reserve or preserve. After 90 days of public comment, the final report will recommend to Congress what option is best.

8/19/02: EPA forced to withdraw new penalty calculations scheme: Congressional investigators called into question the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's methodology for calculating enforcement penalties, forcing the agency to withdraw its controversial plan to modify how it accounts for inflation when assessing fines against polluters.

The Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act requires federal agencies to periodically increase their penalties to account for inflation. The EPA's final rule, released in June, proposed boosting its penalties by 13.6 percent—the rate of inflation since 1996—but wanted to round up those increases based on the actual increase to each penalty category, as opposed to the penalty itself. The net effect of the EPA's modified calculation would significantly lower penalty increases than if the agency used the language of the statute, an approach that "did not conform to the clear intent of Congress," according to the GAO.

"EPA's flimsy, pro-polluter enforcement scheme might have pleased the folks at Arthur Andersen, but the GAO didn't fall for it," said John Walke, director of NRDC's clean air program.

8/19/02: EPA cracking down on North Dakota air polluters: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency insists that North Dakota is in violation of air quality standards because of sulfur dioxide pollution at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a nearby national wildlife refuge. North Dakota environmental officials say the EPA data is wrong and that their own tests show no violation. The dispute could force some power producers in North Dakota to clean up their act by scrubbing sulfur from power plant emissions. Federal officials also have threatened to take over the state's pollution program.

"This is the role that EPA, when forced, should be playing nationwide, to protect not just national parks but all areas of the country," said John Walke, director of NRDC's clean air program. "EPA's tough stance against polluting power plants in North Dakota makes it even more curious that the Bush administration is feverishly working to undermine the Clean Air Act and allow dirtier air all across America."

8/22/02: Interior Department allows more air pollution at national park: The Interior Department reversed a National Park Service finding that air pollution from a proposed coal-fired power plant in western Kentucky would significantly hamper visibility at nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. In an August 22 letter to the state of Kentucky, Interior Assistant Secretary Craig Manson rejected the conclusions of career Park Service officials after meeting with Peabody Energy Corp., one of the nation's largest coal companies and one of President Bush's major campaign contributors.

Peabody wants to build a 1,500-megawatt plant, dubbed Thoroughbred, 50 miles west of the park, and then find an operator to run the plant. The plant would burn Peabody's dirty high-sulfur coal and emit 22 million pounds of sulfur dioxide into the skies over Kentucky every year. The air at Mammoth Cave is already more polluted than at nearly every other park in the country. The proposed plant would only make that pollution worse.

According to internal Interior Department documents obtained by NRDC, Park Service officials found that Peabody's Thoroughbred power plant would have an adverse impact on visibility at Mammoth Cave National Park at the level at which Kentucky wants to allow the plant to pollute. Park officials determined that the level would need to be reduced by nearly half for there to be no adverse effect on visibility at Mammoth Cave.

Manson's letter to Kentucky air quality officials reverses the National Park Service finding that air pollution from Peabody's proposed plant would have an adverse haze impact on Mammoth Cave.

8/22/02: Bush calls for increased logging in the name of fire prevention: President Bush has a simple solution for preventing forest fires: Cut down the trees. His new forest management plan essentially would do just that by rewriting environmental rules to allow timber companies to increase commercial logging in national forests. The president unveiled his plan in Oregon, one of the Western states suffering from a season of devastating wildfires. He said reducing the risk of fires requires "extensive thinning" of forests, as well as federal legislation aimed at "streamlining" or relaxing environmental laws so the timber industry can step up logging across millions of acres of national forest land.

Loggers and conservationists agree that the catastrophic fires of recent years resulted in large part due to a variety of Forest Service policies, including the practice of extinguishing low-intensity fires. The policy, pursued since the 1920s, resulted in much denser forests and a buildup of smaller trees and brush. In the meantime, timber companies harvested the larger, most fire-resistant trees. These were perfect conditions for high-intensity fires that can destroy ecosystems. With two of the last three summers having been among the worst fire years on record, Congress has already thrown its support and hundreds of millions of dollars behind a plan to remove more brush, small trees and undergrowth from public lands to make them less susceptible to blazes.

The National Fire Plan, launched in 2000, is designed to thin forests that are dangerously overgrown with trees and brush that can quickly become kindling for wildfires. Also central to the plan is the principle that many fires in remote forests are beneficial and should be allowed to burn unless they threaten homes. Two years later, the effort has cost more than $6 billion and implementation has been slow.

President Bush now appears to want to go further by giving the timber industry greater leeway to cut larger, more commercially valuable trees as well as worthless brush, and denying citizens the legal tools they have used to block such logging. In particular, Bush wants Congress to waive provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, which dates from 1970. His plan also would exempt almost all forest management projects—from controlled burns to mechanical thinning projects virtually identical to commercial logging—from judicial review.

The impacts of such an exemption would likely be similar to the 1995 Salvage Rider, which effectively barred appeals and lawsuits of salvage timber sales and generated tremendous controversy. Environmental groups, long critical of the President for appointing friends of timber and other industries to top posts, accused the President of using Western wildfires to justify increased logging. They point out that cutting would likely target the most valuable large trees instead of the smaller wood that poses the greatest fire risk.

Forest Service research shows that effectively protecting homes and communities from fire risk involves measures taken in the immediate vicinity of homes and other structures—such as clearing land and fireproofing roofs.

8/23/02: Bush administration abandons California water plan: Interior Secretary Norton quietly dropped her agency's appeal of a court ruling involving a critical component of California's widely supported water plan. The state-federal "CalFed" plan is designed to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta and improve water supply reliability for California. Congress currently is considering legislation to authorize funding for the CalFed plan. However, a federal judge in Fresno ruled in February that federal regulators improperly allocated water to fish and wildlife. If upheld, the decision will reduce the amount of water available for protecting the environment.

Environmentalists say that by withdrawing the government's appeal in the case, Secretary Norton is undermining the very cornerstone of the plan. The appeal was filed by the Department of Interior in May in a suit filed by Central Valley agribusiness interests in an attempt to weaken the CalFed plan. Environmentalists also are questioning the role played by a former water industry lobbyist who now advises Norton on California water issues. That key staffer, Jason Peltier, previously was a longtime lobbyist for Central Valley agricultural interests. For over a decade, as the head of the Central Valley Project Water Association, Peltier led efforts to oppose federal water reform.

Despite Peltier's efforts, President George Bush Sr. signed into law the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992. The CVPIA was a major overhaul of the federal project that delivers water to farmers and other California water users. It guaranteed that water would be made available for environmental protection. The Department of Interior wrote rules to implement the CVPIA, which serve as the foundation of the CalFed plan. On October 31, 1992, the day after CVPIA became law, Peltier pledged in the San Francisco Chronicle, "We'll do anything and everything to keep from being harmed. If that means obstructing implementation [of the bill] so be it."

The Westlands Water District, the largest and most powerful member of Peltier's former employer, brought the lawsuit in question. If upheld, the decision by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno will dramatically reduce the amount of water available for Bay-Delta restoration. But environmentalists say the damage could go beyond fish and wildlife; the ruling threatens no less than to bring down the carefully balanced CalFed program and its promise of reliable water supplies for the rest of the state. NRDC and other environmental groups are appealing the ruling to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.

"In yet another environmental rollback by the Bush administration, Secretary Norton is walking away from CalFed, even though she had pledged to support it," said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst for NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "If Peltier influenced her decision, it means he is finally delivering on his promise to special interests."

8/26/02: White House Utah drilling plans under fire from local businesses: A coalition of small businesses sent a letter to President Bush opposing his administration's plans to allow oil drilling on public lands in southern Utah. They are worried that drilling and related activities will mar the landscape that is "the bedrock for drawing significant revenue to our local businesses." They pointed out that oil produced in the state generates $1 billion annually, while tourists visiting Utah's popular canyons and other natural treasures spend $4.25 billion. The 52 businesses that signed the letter—including bed-and-breakfasts, sightseeing firms, and restaurants—said they don't oppose oil drilling outright but prefer that it take place in less sensitive areas in the state.

"It's not just environmentalists who oppose the Bush administration's drill-dig-burn energy plan," said Johanna Wald, director of NRDC's land program. "But so far the president has only listened to big business, not the smaller ones."

8/27/02: U.S. undermines renewable energy proposal at World Summit: Just two days into the U.N. summit in Johannesburg, the U.S. joined Saudi Arabia and other nations in resisting promises to expand the use of clean, renewable energy technologies around the globe. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power produce smaller and more expensive amounts of electricity than a traditional power plant, but without adding to the pollution caused by burning oil, coal and other fossil fuels, as well as carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming. A proposal for the World Summit on Sustainable Development's action plan calls for increasing the world's use of renewable energy to 15 percent by 2010. But the U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, opposed any target.

"The effort to provide cleaner sources of electricity to the 2.5 billion people who do not have it today went up in smoke," said Jacob Scherr, director of NRDC's international program. "Without U.S. commitment, it will be next to impossible to expand clean energy worldwide and curb global warming pollution."

8/30/02: Bush's new wildfire expert no friend of forests: This just in: The man chosen to direct the Bush administration's efforts to reduce wildfire danger on public lands doubts the existence of ecosystems and thinks the extinction of the nation's threatened and endangered species might not be a bad idea. Allan Fitzsimmons, the new head of the Interior Department's wildfire prevention program, is tasked with implementing President Bush's new fire reduction strategy, the so-called Healthy Forests Initiative. His appointment confirms the fears of environmentalists that the new program is a thinly disguised effort to accelerate logging in national forests.

In "The Illusion of Ecosystem Management," published in 1999 by the Political Economy Research Center, a group that applies market principles to environmental problems, Fitzsimmons wrote that because ecosystems exist only in the human imagination and cannot be delineated, federal policies should not be used to try to manage or restore them. In another paper he took the position that the nation is not experiencing a biodiversity crisis. In fact, the loss of all of the species currently listed by the government as threatened or endangered, he argued, would be balanced out by an increase in non-indigenous species—many of which are taking over native landscapes with devastating results.

"Putting Fitzsimmons in charge of forest health is like entrusting Enron with your retirement savings," said Nathaniel Lawrence, director of NRDC's forest program.


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This story was published on October 2, 2002.
  
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