e-mail us

Cover story

Report details weakened environmental protections

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental advocacy group with more than 500,000 members and headquarters in Washington, released its annual report covering the year 2002 in late January.

Titled “Rewriting the Rules: The Bush Administration’s Assault on the Environment,” the report details in its 53 pages a list of “continuing environmental retreats by the Bush administration over the past year, and especially the escalating assault in the few short months since the 2002 congressional elections.”

According to the report, environmental programs around the country have been “peppered with more than 100 weakening changes, affecting every program that protects our air, water, forests, wetlands, public health, wildlife and pristine wild areas.”

Some of the most troubling examples of these changes include the Forest Service proposals to reduce public involvement in forestry planning and the announcement in January by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of new policies that will greatly reduce the number of wetlands and waterways protected by the Clean Water Act.

In addition, the “grandfather of envi-ronmental statutes,” the National Environmental Policy Act, is also threatened, according to the report. The act requires public participation in key environmental decisions, and mandates the preparation of environmental impact statements for federal moves with potentially significant en-vironmental consequences. In recent proposals, the White House has scaled back long-standing requirements for reviews and participation applying to highway construction, offshore oil development and logging in national forests.

It’s obvious, says the report, “that every federal agency with authority over environmental programs has been enlisted in a coordinated effort to help oil, coal, logging, mining, chemical and auto companies, and others promote their short-term profits at the expense of America’s public health and natural heritage.” The agencies mentioned include the Department of the Interior, EPA, U.S. Forest Service, Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers.

“This onslaught is being quietly coordinated through the White House,” Robert Perks, coauthor of the report, told NCR. Moreover, the White House seems fully aware of how unpopular its environmental agenda is, timing its major environmental announcements, Perks said, “to make it as difficult as possible for the news media to report on them, usually releasing information late on Friday afternoons. Especially important pronouncements are saved for big holidays when reporters are unavailable.

“For example, the EPA announced its recent changes in clean air regulations on the afternoon before Thanksgiving and on New Year’s Eve.”

The Resources Defense Council report lays out its case in page after page of witty subheads, like “Mine Your Own Business,” “Ever (Failing) Glades Restoration,” “Bird-Killing Pesticide Back from the Dead,” “Drill First, Ask Questions Later” and “Preventing Forests, Not Fires.”

In the same pithy language, the report summary declares: “It’s clear the cop is off the beat where enforcement of our environmental laws is concerned.” Penalties for violations of these laws have decreased drastically, says the report, since Bush took office, “with the amount of the average penalty dropping by more than half.”

Our government should be addressing important problems such as global warming, sprawl and the loss of wildlife and natural areas now more than ever, the report concludes, but “another year has passed during which the Bush administration has directed its time and energy to moving America backwards on our most basic safeguards.”

Perks said, “Bush seems to be paying a low political price for these moves against the environment, but I don’t think he’s getting a free pass. It’s actually one of his biggest liabilities. He was on the ropes prior to Sept. 11. He even reversed his announced decision on loosening arsenic standards in drinking water. Now the terrorism war and looming conflict in Iraq make it easier for his administration to gets its way in other areas. And the sheer number of these low-key attacks on environmental regulations and legislation keep us, his opponents, reeling and off balance.”

Perks said that 2004, an election year, would probably show some change. “The administration will continue to placate its corporate benefactors, but there will be less talk of undermining environmental laws and regulation, more talk about fuel cell cars. They won’t reverse the reversals, but they will throw out some bones, continuing their sleight of hand, deflecting and confusing the electorate.”

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003