President Bush's record on environmental
laws a certain political target
The Plain Dealer
Washington - Democrats who hope to wrest the White House
from President Bush smell votes in Ohio's industrial air
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
"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."