September 03, 2003

Dirty Secrets

"No president has gone after the nation's environmental laws with the same fury as George W. Bush -- and none has been so adept at staying under the radar. " / News / Feature

Dirty Secrets
No president has gone after the nation's environmental laws with the same fury as George W. Bush -- and none has been so adept at staying under the radar.

Osha Gray Davidson
September 1, 2003

IN THE EARLY 1980s you didn't need to be a member of
EarthFirst! to know that Ronald Reagan was bad for the
environment. You didn't even have to be especially
politically aware. Here was a man who had, after all,
publicly stated that most air pollution was caused by
plants. And then there was Reagan's secretary of the
Interior, James Watt, who saw no need to protect the
environment because Jesus was returning any day, and
who, in a pique of reactionary feng shui, suggested
that the buffalo on Interior's seal be flipped to face
right instead of left.

By contrast, while George W. Bush gets low marks on
the environment from a majority of Americans, few
fully appreciate the scope and fury of this
administration's anti-environmental agenda. "What
they're doing makes the Reagan administration look
innocent," says Buck Parker, executive director of
Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. The
Bush administration has been gutting key sections of
the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, laws that have
traditionally had bipartisan support and have done
more to protect the health of Americans than any other
environmental legislation. It has crippled the
Superfund program, which is charged with cleaning up
millions of pounds of toxic industrial wastes such as
arsenic, lead, mercury, and vinyl chloride in more
than 1,000 neighborhoods in 48 states. It has sought
to cut the EPA's enforcement division by nearly
one-fifth, to its lowest level on record; fines
assessed for environmental violations dropped by
nearly two-thirds in the administration's first two
years; and criminal prosecutions-the government's
weapon of last resort against the worst polluters-are
down by nearly one-third.

The administration has abdicated the decades-old
federal responsibility to protect native animals and
plants from extinction, becoming the first not to
voluntarily add a single species to the endangered
species list. It has opened millions of acres of
wilderness-including some of the nation's most
environmentally sensitive public lands-to logging,
mining, and oil and gas drilling. Under one plan,
loggers could take 10 percent of the trees in
California's Giant Sequoia National Monument; many of
the Monument's old-growth sequoias, 200 years old and
more, could be felled to make roof shingles. Other
national treasures that have been opened for
development include the million-acre Grand
Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, the
2,000-foot red-rock spires at Fisher Towers, Utah, and
dozens of others.

And then, of course, the White House has all but
denied the existence of what may be the most serious
environmental problem of our time, global warming.
After campaigning on a promise to reduce emissions of
the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, Bush made an abrupt
about-face once elected, calling his earlier pledge "a
mistake" and announcing that he would not regulate CO2
emissions from power plants-even though the United
States accounts for a fourth of the world's total
industrial CO2 emissions. Since then, the White House
has censored scientific reports that mentioned the
subject, walked away from the Kyoto agreement to
reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and even, at the
behest of ExxonMobil, engineered the ouster of the
scientist who chaired the United Nations
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So why aren't more people aware that George W. Bush is
compiling what is arguably the worst environmental
record of any president in recent history? The easy
explanations-that environmental issues are complex,
that war and terrorism push most other concerns off
the front pages-are only part of the story. The real
reason may be far simpler: Few people know the
magnitude of the administration's attacks on the
environment because the administration has been
working very hard to keep it that way.

Like any successful commander in chief, Bush knows
that putting the right person in the right place is
the key to winning any war. This isn't just a matter
of choosing business-friendly appointees for top
positions. That's pretty much standard operating
procedure for Republican administrations. What makes
this administration different is the fact that it is
filled with anti-regulatory zealots deep into its rank
and file-and these bureaucrats, unlike James Watt, are
politically savvy and come from the very industries
they're charged with regulating. The result is an
administration uniquely effective at implementing its
ambitious pro-industry agenda-with a minimum of public

Take the case of mountaintop-removal coal mining. As
the name implies, this method-the predominant form of
strip mining in much of Appalachia-involves blasting
away entire mountaintops to get at coal seams below
and dumping the resulting rubble, called "spoil," into
adjacent valleys. In some cases, valleys two miles
long have been completely filled with spoil. Opponents
had hoped that a court-ordered Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) would crack down on the practice,
which has buried at least 1,000 miles of Appalachian
streams and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of
woodland that the EPA describes as "unique in the
world" for their biological diversity. But when the
Bush administration released the EIS this spring, it
not only gave mountaintop removal a clean bill of
health; it also relaxed what few meaningful
environmental protections existed and focused on how
to help mining companies obtain permits more easily.

So how did a process mandated by a federal judge "to
minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the
adverse environmental effects" from mountaintop
removal become a vehicle for industry? Two words:
Steven Griles. Never heard of him? You're not supposed
to. Steven Griles is one of industry's moles within
the Bush administration. Before coming to work as
deputy secretary of the Interior, Griles was one of
the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, with a long
list of energy-industry clients, including the
National Mining Association and several of the
country's largest coal companies. On August 1, 2001,
Griles signed a "statement of disqualification,"
promising to stay clear of issues involving his former
clients. Despite that promise, according to his own
appointment calendar (obtained by environmental groups
through the Freedom of Information Act), Griles met
repeatedly with coal companies while the
administration worked on the mountaintop-removal
issue. Griles has denied discussing the "fill rule" in
any of those meetings. But on August 4, 2001-three
days after signing his recusal letter-he gave a speech
before the West Virginia Coal Association, reassuring
members that "we will fix the federal rules very soon
on water and spoil placement." Two months later,
Griles sent a letter to the EPA and other agencies
drafting the EIS, complaining that they were not doing
enough to safeguard the future of mountaintop removal
and instructing them to "focus on centralizing and
streamlining coal mine permitting." Griles is now the
subject of an Interior Department investigation for
possible ethics violations.

With key positions in the hands of industry veterans,
the administration has been able to pursue one of its
most effective stealth tactics -- steering clear of
legislative battles and working instead within the
difficult-to-understand, yawn-producing realm of
agency regulations. It's a strategy that has served
Bush well, especially in his push to give the energy
industry-which donated $2.8 million to the 2000 Bush
campaign-access to some of the nation's last
wildlands. In Congress, where the administration's
agenda must endure full public scrutiny, Bush's effort
to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge has failed repeatedly. But there was little
public debate over a plan to drill 66,000 coalbed
methane gas wells in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming
and Montana-a massive project that will result in
26,000 miles of new roads, 48,000 miles of new
pipelines, and discharges of 2 trillion gallons of
contaminated water, disfiguring for years the rolling
hills of that landscape. That plan was hatched behind
closed doors, by the secretive energy task force
headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Cheney task force is behind another of the
administration's pet projects-protecting utilities
from having to comply with a law enacted 26 years ago.
Some 30,000 Americans die each year because the
federal government is unwilling to take meaningful
steps to enforce the Clean Air Act's standards for
coal-fired power plants. Nearly 6,000 of those deaths
are attributable to plants owned by a mere eight
companies, according to a study by ABT Associates,
which frequently conducts assessments for the EPA.
(The companies are American Electric Power, Cinergy,
Duke, Dynegy, FirstEnergy, SIGECO, Southern Company,
and the Tennessee Valley Authority.)

When Congress passed the current air-pollution
standards in 1977, it grandfathered in these aging
plants and some 16,000 other industrial facilities
around the country. Under a provision known as New
Source Review, the plants could perform routine
maintenance without having to install cleaner
technologies, but any substantive changes or
expansions leading to increased emissions would force
the operators to meet the new standards. The grace
period was expected to last just a few years-a
reasonable compromise, it must have seemed to Congress
at the time. Yet, for nearly three decades these
facilities have gotten around the New Source Review
rules by continually expanding and calling it "routine

In 1999, the EPA's then-director of enforcement, Eric
Schaeffer, tried something radically new: He actually
enforced the law. The agency filed suit against eight
power companies that together emitted one-fifth of the
nation's total output of sulfur dioxide-a deadly
compound that is also the leading cause of acid rain.
Soon, violators started lining up to negotiate
settlements. By the end of 2000, two of the largest
power companies had agreed to cut emissions by
two-thirds. And then George W. Bush took office. The
new administration immediately leaked its intentions
to expand, rather than close, the New Source Review
loophole (see "No Clear Skies"). By March 2002, EPA
administrator Christine Whitman was telling Congress
that if she were an attorney for one of the companies
sued by the agency, "I would not settle anything." Not
surprisingly, the two tentative agreements the EPA had
worked out evaporated.

Meanwhile, in a classic bit of greenwashing, the White
House has released a plan called "Clear Skies" that
will, in President Bush's words, "dramatically reduce
pollution from power plants." In fact, Clear Skies
would gut the standards of the Clean Air Act, allowing
companies to wait 15 more years to install
state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment-and even
then, power plants would be emitting far more
pollution than allowed under current law, for a total
of 450,000 tons of additional nitrogen oxide, 1
million tons of sulfur dioxide, and 9.5 tons of
mercury annually.

The administration also wants to sink millions into
reviving the dying nuclear industry, increasing by 50
percent the number of nuclear plants currently
operating in the United States. That's no small feat,
given that not a single new plant has been ordered for
two and a half decades-not since the nation held its
breath in 1979, waiting to find out if a nuclear
doomsday scenario was unfolding at Three Mile Island.
Industry officials insist that with today's improved
technology such a calamity is unthinkable. But that
hasn't stopped the administration from endorsing a $9
billion cap on industry liability, just in case the
unthinkable should occur. Other gifts to nuclear-plant
operators include more than $1 billion in new
subsidies and tax breaks, support for relicensing
dangerously outdated reactors, and at least $18
billion in taxpayer money for construction of a
high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain,

Whitman issued a "state of the environment" report
that fairly rhapsodized about the significance of
environmental protection: "Pristine waterways [and]
safe drinking waters are treasured resources," one
passage declared. "The nation has made significant
progress in protecting these resources in the last 30

What Whitman did not mention was that the
administration has spent two years attempting to
eviscerate the law that brought about most of that
progress-the Clean Water Act of 1972. In January 2003,
the administration proposed new rules for managing the
nation's wetlands, removing 20 percent of the
country's remaining swamps, ponds, and marshes from
federal protection. And wetlands are only the
beginning: A close reading of the proposed rules shows
that the administration is attempting to change the
definition of "waters of the United States" to exclude
up to 60 percent of the country's rivers, lakes, and
streams from protection, giving industries permission
to pollute, alter, fill, and build on all of these
waterways (see "Down Upon the Suwannee"). "No
president since the Clean Water Act was passed has
proposed getting rid of it on the majority of waters
of the U.S.," notes Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice-and
Bush might not have tried either, had he been forced
to justify the move in congressional debate rather
than burying it in bureaucratic rule-making.

Even when it seems to bow to environmental concerns,
the administration often manages to leave a back door
open for industry. This summer, after more than two
years of foot-dragging and resistance in court, the
Department of Agriculture finally accepted a
Clinton-era rule placing more than 58 million acres of
national forests off limits to road building (and thus
logging). But it added two caveats: Governors could
obtain exemptions for federal forests inside their
borders (as several have already done); and the rule
wouldn't apply in much of Alaska, where the largest
stretches of roadless wild forest are located. In
June, Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey-a veteran
timber lobbyist who is now the chief architect of the
nation's forest policy-announced that nearly 3 million
acres of land could be opened to timber sales in
Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the planet's largest
pristine temperate rainforest and home to several
species of animals found nowhere else on earth.

The White House has also been darkly brilliant at
using the courts to do its dirty work-through methods
such as "sweetheart suits," the practice of
encouraging states and private groups to file lawsuits
against the federal government, and then agreeing to
negotiated settlements that bypass environmental laws
without any interference from Congress or the public.
In perhaps the most egregious such case, in April the
state of Utah and the Interior Department announced
that they had reached a settlement involving 10
million acres of federal lands set aside in the 1990s
for possible wilderness designation. The deal will
allow Utah to sell oil and gas rights on what had
largely been pristine areas, including the Grand
Staircase-Escalante National Monument with its
multihued cliffs and Cedar Mesa, a fragile desert area
near Monument Valley that holds world-renowned
archaeological sites-and that is now slated to host a
jeep safari.

Two days after the first settlement with Utah-in
another closed-door deal-Interior Secretary Gale
Norton signed a second, more sweeping compact
promising that the federal government would never
again so much as study lands for wilderness
designation. And not just in Utah: The decision, which
effectively freezes a wilderness-protection program
that goes back nearly 40 years, applies to more than
200 million acres of Western lands, an area twice as
large as California.

But it's not just the West's spectacular scenery
that's threatened, or even the purity of our air and
water-as important as those are. By using stealth
tactics to pursue a corporate agenda, the Bush
administration is undermining the very landscape of
democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry,
transparency in government, and lively public debate.
A culture of deception and deceit erodes all of
these-and that is probably the most serious
"environmental" damage of all.

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This article has been made possible by the Foundation
for National Progress, the Investigative Fund of
Mother Jones, and gifts from generous readers like

2003 The Foundation for National Progress

Posted by richard at September 3, 2003 01:25 PM