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President Bush's record on environmental laws a certain political target
Sabrina Eaton
The Plain Dealer
10/26/03


Washington - Democrats who hope to wrest the White House from President Bush smell votes in Ohio's industrial air pol lution.

Democrats and environ mentalists pre dict Bush's pro- business envi ronmental poli cies will in crease pol-lution. Although they acknowledge his changes haven't been in place long enough for tests to show dirtier air and water, they brand Bush a pariah who has trashed natural resources to benefit his corporate contributors.

"This administration has the worst environmental record of any in modern times, period," said Carol Browner, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during Bill Clinton's presidency. She urges Democrats to use the issue against Bush in the 2004 election.

The Bush administration and its supporters say it has merely simplified complicated clean air and water rules in ways that will benefit the environment. They dismiss environmentalists' complaints as political sniping.

For example, they say Bush's Clear Skies proposal, which would let businesses that emit air pollution buy clean air credits from those that don't, would cut Ohio's sulfur dioxide emissions by 77 percent, its nitrogen oxides emissions by 67 percent, and its mercury emissions by 66 percent over the next 17 years.

Environmental groups say the plan before Congress would lower standards set by previous law and let polluters avoid cleanups.

"The level of partisan rhetoric has been high since day one," said Tom Skinner, who heads the EPA regional office that oversees Ohio. "As a result of that, the progress we are continuing to make gets lost."

Political experts are divided over how big a factor the environment will be in the 2004 election. Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, notes that environmental advocates never liked Bush. He predicts issues like the economy will influence more undecided "swing" voters that both parties are trying to attract.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake disagrees. Her September poll found the public believes air quality has declined under Bush, that independent voters are skeptical of his environmental policies and that environmental issues can play an important role in targeting swing voters.

This month, Browner and Bruce Babbitt, who headed the Interior Department under Clinton, formed a group called Environment2004, which will spend $5 million to target voters in swing states, including Ohio, with messages about Bush's environmental policies.

Democrats running for president are already on the attack. Three U.S. senators in the field are blocking Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt's nomination to become EPA administrator because they object to Bush's environmental policies, and others in the race also are hammering his record.

Bush's most controversial initiatives include efforts to open more forests to loggers and a drive to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

His changes to clean air regulations have been the hottest environmental issue in Ohio because of the state's concentration of smokestack industries and coal-burning power plants. Many of the plants' operators complained that pollution controls required under the Clean Air Act were unnecessary and prohibitively expensive.

Under Bush, environmentalists say, the EPA has cut its compliance inspections by 13 percent, initiated 25 percent fewer civil pollution cases and filed 40 percent fewer criminal complaints.

They say his alteration in August of the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program granted business lobbyists their wishes by letting older factories and power plants make upgrades and operate longer without adding new anti-pollution equipment.

They also fear the change will undercut EPA lawsuits against companies including Columbus-based American Electric Power and Cincinnati-based Cinergy, who are accused of violating the old law by neglecting to add anti-pollution equipment when they altered coal-burning power plants and increased emissions. The Clinton administration initiated the cases against the utilities.

"The Bush administration has basically given companies a signal that they don't need to go forward with cleanup," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust. He noted that after Bush took office, Cinergy refused to finalize a $1 billion settlement, negotiated during Clinton's presidency, that would have required it to install scrubbers on its coal-burning power plants.

However, a Cinergy spokesman said negotiations are continuing on the settlement. And the Bush administration has taken some long-pending lawsuits forward against accused polluters.

In August, for instance, a federal judge in Columbus found that Akron-based FirstEnergy violated the Clean Air Act by failing to add pollution controls when it modernized a power plant in Jefferson County.

Environmental groups say such cases are the exception, and that Bush's tinkering with the Clean Air Act will have serious local consequences. Rose Garr, a field organizer with Ohio Public Interest Research Group, cited an Abt Associates study that blamed power plant pollution for hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and nearly 2,000 premature deaths in Ohio each year.

The failure of industries to install anti-pollution devices could also make it harder for Ohio communities to meet new pollution standards that take effect next year, says the Ohio Environmental Council's Kurt Walzer. New airborne ozone standards go into effect next April, and new standards for airborne fine particles take effect in December 2004. Communities that don't meet new standards will face limits on development, he said.

Environmentalists also criticize the Bush administration for allowing the Superfund program that cleans up toxic waste sites to run low on money, among other things.

Yet for all the criticism environmental groups level at Bush, pollution measurements in Cleveland and other metropolitan areas have remained roughly constant since he took office.

O'Donnell, of the Clean Air Trust, says that's because there is often a lag between government regulatory changes and their effect. For example, he said, it took a decade for the full benefits of the cleaner automotive exhaust mandated by Congress in 1970 to show up in air quality tests.

EPA regional administrator Skinner acknowledges his agency has changed its tactics somewhat under Bush. But he says it also has vigorously prosecuted polluters and focused on working with states, cities and communities to correct problems.

The environment is protected, he said, but in a way "that doesn't unnecessarily affect the bottom line and doesn't unnecessarily cost jobs."

Under Bush, he said, the EPA has focused significant research dollars to trace the cause of oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in Lake Erie. It has worked with Ohio officials to solve sewer overflow problems, and has provided more money to clean up polluted industrial sites.

Bush also signed the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which provides $15 million yearly to clean up polluted sites along the Great Lakes.

Skinner said the reason the Superfund program is running out of money is because the Clinton administration let a tax that funded it expire. He said EPA is using resources it has to ensure that Superfund cleanups occur.

Bush's 2004 budget will increase Superfund cleanup money by $150 million over 2003, the EPA said.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christopher Jones agreed that Bush's changes haven't had any substantive impact in Ohio.

He said Democrats made Bush look bad on environmental matters early on, when he suspended a rule adopted in the last days of the Clinton administration that reduced allowable arsenic in drinking water.

Although Bush's staff merely wanted to review the rule, and ultimately upheld it, that created a perception that the president retreated on environmental regulations, Jones said.

"There has been all this hyperbolic discussion about rolling back rules, people dying and everything else," Jones said. "What we really need to talk about is, what rules would be right if these aren't the right rules? The facts don't follow all the commentary."

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