The Bush administration issues daily communiques on a seemingly inevitable war with Iraq, but beneath the radar it is engaged in an assault on the nation's environmental laws. The Kyoto treaty on global warming, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and provisions to protect public lands have been attacked. An obscure notice in the Jan. 15 Federal Register listed the latest target, the Clean Water Act.
While President Bush tries to convince the average American
of his commitment to the "no net loss" wetlands policy
of his father, his administration's actions show his real
intentions. He is now seeking a review of how the "waters
of the United States" should be defined under the Clean
Water Act, the first step toward limiting the water bodies
subject to federal protections.
Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 because polluted
rivers were catching fire and because almost half of the
wetlands in the lower 48 states had disappeared. Although
the law has not yet fully accomplished its objective "to
restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological
integrity of the nation's waters," it has resulted in
vast improvements in how we protect our nonnavigable waterways.
Factories have learned to limit their discharges of pollutants
-- often saving money as they limit or recycle waste products
-- and the pace of wetlands loss has slowed.
The tourism, fishing and recreation industries also reap
financial benefits because of clean water and healthy
wetlands. People flock to visit water bodies and to live
near them. Much wildlife depends on wetlands at some point
in its life cycle.
The last thing Americans need is to roll back the progress
we have made in the last 30 years.
Bush's excuse for seeking to redefine "waters of the U.S."
derives from a 2001 decision by a sharply divided Supreme
Court, which struck down the "migratory bird rule." This
decision would restrict the federal government from regulating
"isolated wetlands" whose only link to interstate commerce
is use by migratory birds.
The constitutionality of the Clean Water Act derives from
the authority of Congress to make laws regarding interstate
commerce. Thus, a commercial interest must be at stake
for the federal government to exert its regulatory powers
over water bodies.
Although the court has generally set a low threshold for
meeting the commerce test, the ruling erected a higher
threshold in the wetlands context, holding that migratory
bird use fails to meet the test. This has given the Bush
administration the ammunition needed to slowly dismantle
the Clean Water Act by preparing to restrict the number
of wetlands entitled to protection. Without protection,
polluters would be able to discharge wastes into California's
water bodies without fear of federal interference.
Polls have consistently shown that Americans overwhelmingly
support the Clean Water Act. But while attention is riveted
on the prospect of war with Iraq, the administration is
waging guerrilla operations against the environment by
systematically dismantling the critical provisions of
the nation's decades-old, bipartisan environmental policy.
This war is well underway and there will be many casualties.
Is anyone paying attention?
Paul Koretz is a Democratic state assemblyman representing
the 42nd District, which includes West Hollywood, Beverly
Hills and part of Los Angeles. Joan Hartmann, an adjunct
professor with the environmental studies program at USC,
is on the assemblyman's environmental advisory committee.