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The Planet
From the Editor: Slamming Bush's Window

Administration chisels away at environmental protections – piece by piece, week by week

by John Byrne Barry

Word on the street is that come early next year, President Bush will stop dismantling 30 years of environmental protection and, presto, become a compassionate conservative. Until oh, about Wednesday, November 3.

That gives him a window of another six to nine months to wreak havoc.

"President Bush does not want to launch any attacks on the Clean Air Act next summer," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "Voters won't have time to forget."

Of course, between now and then, the Sierra Club is doing its best to shine the spotlight on Bush administration misdeeds and make sure that American citizens don't get amnesia next fall.

The attacks on the environment have already been coming fast and furious, many announced on Friday afternoons when they attract the least amount of media attention. (For a full list, go to www.sierraclub.org/wwatch.) Even if nothing else happened, this administration would still qualify as the biggest environmental threat since rivers burned and skies were choked by industrial pollution 30-plus years ago.

Pope highlights three of the administration's most dangerous moves:

"They want to allow old power plants, old refineries, and old factories to operate indefinitely without cleaning up up their pollution and they call that 'Clear Skies.' They want taxpayers, not polluters, to pay for cleanup of toxic dumps and they don't want to clean up most of them. And they want to subsidize timber companies to cut down fire-resistant big trees, but they won't fund programs that actually protect communities from fire by cleaning up brush and slash near where people live."

Some of the Bush administration's anti-environmental actions are fait accomplis-like the yanking of $34 million in promised funding for the United Nations Family Planning Agency. But most are not and can still be stopped or derailed.

The executive branch can't do all the damage by itself. The Republican-controlled Congress has succeeded-so far-in squashing any positive environmental measures, like raising fuel economy, but it is not so dominant that it can ram through the bad stuff. The Democratic minority in the Senate, for example, has filibustered four times to stymie the confirmation of D.C. District Court nominee Miguel Estrada. (For more on why the Club is opposing Bush's judicial nominees, see Gaveling the Courts)

To be sure, the administration has already cut a wide swath through our environmental protections. It weakened the Clinton administration's Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protected 58.5 million acres of national forests from roadbuilding and logging, by giving governors a loophole to "seek relief for exceptional circumstances." The EPA gave mining companies the go-ahead to blast the tops off mountains, then dump the waste into streams. The Bush administration has also exempted small streams and wetlands from Clean Water Act protection.

But even the administrative actions, which do not require congressional approval, can be challenged with public pressure and lawsuits. That's happening now with the Clean Air Act rule changes.

When the Clean Air Act became law in 1970, thousands of the oldest and dirtiest power plants and refineries were "grandfathered"-allowing them to pollute up to ten times more than modern plants. In 2003, thousands of these polluting facilities are still operating. Under a provision called New Source Review, dirty facilities are required to upgrade to new anti-pollution technologies if they expand. Earlier this year, however, the Bush administration finalized a set of rules that would allow them to expand without doing so.


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