Rewriting the Rules (2005 Special Edition)
The Bush Administration's First Term Environmental Record
After four years in office, the George W. Bush administration has compiled an environmental record that is taking our nation in a new and dangerous direction. Last year alone, Bush administration agencies made more than 150 actions that weakened our environmental laws. Over the course of the first term, this administration led the most thorough and destructive campaign against America's environmental safeguards in the past 40 years.
Even more troubling than the vastness of the onslaught is the fundamental nature of the policy changes. These changes do not merely call for updating regulations. They represent radical alterations to our core environmental laws.
For example, the administration has attempted to undermine the Clean Air Act by weakening the new source review program that pushes old polluting power plants and industrial facilities to clean up. It has tried to narrow the scope of the Clean Water Act by stripping environmental protections from thousands of wetlands and streams. It is moving to hobble the Endangered Species Act by eliminating uniquely effective programs that protect habitat critical for threatened species. And it is reversing the single most important forest protection measure ever -- the rule that protects 58 million acres of pristine, roadless, national forest lands.
Beyond its focus on dismantling landmark environmental achievements, the administration is turning a blind eye to today's pressing environmental challenges. Scientists from around the world call for urgent action to reduce global warming pollution, but the United States now stands alone in opposing even the most basic effort to move forward cooperatively. While nearly every state now warns about the threat of mercury poisoning from the consumption of locally caught fish, the administration promotes its misleadingly titled "Clear Skies" scheme that would dramatically weaken mercury pollution control requirements in the existing clean air law.
Not surprisingly, after four years, the Bush administration's relentless anti-environmental agenda has translated into real damage on the ground. A recent Knight Ridder analysis of government data shows that Americans now face a dirtier environment while polluters largely get a free pass. Since the Bush administration began, health warnings to avoid eating locally caught fish have doubled and completed cleanup of toxic wastes at Superfund sites have fallen by 52 percent; yet civil citations issued to polluters have dropped by 57 percent and criminal prosecutions of polluters have fallen 17 percent.
Meanwhile, the administration is making every effort to keep the public in the dark about the policies that contribute to these degraded environmental conditions. It has taken unprecedented steps to cut citizens out of the decision-making process for a number of critical public health and land management policies.
For instance, just days before this past Christmas holiday, the administration gutted its public comment process for federal forest management plans. It also routinely shares working drafts of public health standards with polluters and chemical manufacturers, and takes their suggestions but gives the public only 60 days to comment on the final version.
Data Show Environmental Deterioration
There is ample data affirming that the Bush administration's destructive policies have had a significant negative effect on our nation's environment. The facts are clear. The figures above and below, largely drawn from the administration's own data, show that environmental protection declining precipitously.
Toxic Releases Are Up
After years of consistent decline, the most recent annual inventory of industrial toxic releases shows an increase of 5 percent in the release of toxic substances into our air, water, and land. Data released in June 2004 document toxic releases from industrial facilities of nearly 4.8 billion pounds.
Environmental Enforcement Is Down
EPA data documents a 75 percent decline in the number of federal lawsuits filed against companies violating national environmental laws in the first three years of the Bush administration as compared to the last three years of the Clinton administration. Civil citations for polluters are down 57 percent since 2001, and criminal prosecutions have fallen 17 percent.
Pollution-Related Beach Closings Are Up
The EPA reports a 36 percent increase in annual beach closings due to unsafe water quality since 2001. Sewage contamination is an important and growing part of the problem.
Mercury Contamination Warnings Are Up
A total of 2,348 fish consumption advisories for mercury contamination were issued in 45 states in 2003. Seventy-six percent of fish samples from U.S. lakes were found to contain mercury levels unsafe for children 3 years old and younger to eat twice a week, according to the EPA. Every year more than 600,000 newborns may have been exposed to levels of mercury exceeding EPA health standards while still in the womb.
Hazardous Waste Cleanups Are Down
The pace of completed cleanups of Superfund hazardous waste sites, which increased dramatically in the later years of the Clinton era, has declined 52 percent since 2001, according to the EPA's own estimates. The Bush administration has refused to seek renewal of the Superfund clean-up tax on polluting industries, allowing the fund effectively to go bankrupt. The EPA reported 34 unfunded Superfund cleanups in 19 states in 2004.
Perchlorate Contamination Is Widespread
Perchlorate, a toxic rocket fuel additive, is leaching out from military dumps and contaminating the drinking water of more than 20 million Americans. More than 90 percent of lettuce and milk sampled nationwide showed levels of perchlorate that may be unsafe for children. Despite recommendations from scientific experts at the EPA to severely reduce perchlorate contamination, the Bush administration has refused to take action.
Dirtier Air, Longer
In September 2004, EPA's inspector general concluded that the agency was not making sufficient progress in reducing the pollutants that cause ozone smog in the nation's population centers. According to EPA data, 159 million Americans (55 percent of our population) now live in areas with hazardous smog levels and 100 million people live in areas that violate the EPA's new pollution standards for harmful soot.
Less Oversight of Refineries
There has been a 52 percent decrease in EPA clean air inspections at refinerie since 2001, and a 68 percent reduction in the number of notices of violations issued to refineries over the same period.
Until recently, our environmental laws and the infrastructure for their enforcement were a model for the world and a tremendous success in improving our quality of life and protecting our health. But today, with its foundations under assault from within, our system for environmental protection is becoming less effective and less credible with each passing day. As evidenced by the statistics above, our environment, our quality of life, and our health are suffering as a result.
Some of 2004's Worst Environmental Actions
It is a considerable understatement to observe that 2004 was not a good year for the environment. Below is a quick review of some of the year's most troubling Bush administration actions.
Letting Industry Draft a Mercury Proposal
In January 2004, the EPA unveiled proposals to regulate mercury emissions from power plants that were criticized as far weaker than enforcing current Clean Air Act law. In September 2004, internal agency documents were made public confirming that the EPA's proposal copied passages from a memo written by lawyers representing the utility industry.
Trying to Legalize Sewage Dumping in Our Waterways
According to EPA data, sewage releases onto our lands and into our waters occur thousands of time annually in the United States, and typically contain bacteria, viruses, fecal matter, and a host of other dangerous wastes. In December 2004, the EPA was poised to finalize a policy that would allow the routine release of inadequately treated sewage into waterways as long as it is diluted with treated sewage, a process the agency has euphemistically labeled "blending."
Managing National Forests for Forestry Companies
In December 2004, after President Bush proclaimed that his environmental policies have "improved habitat on public and private lands," the U.S. Forest Service formally nullified basic wildlife protections dating back to the Reagan administration. Under the new rule, the Forest Service will be able to eradicate many fish and wildlife populations that inhabit national forests.
Drinking Water Contamination to Remain Unregulated
In April 2004, the EPA formally decided to ignore the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) regarding the regulation of additional substances not currently listed under the law. The EPA postponed consideration of the NAS recommendations until the issuance of a new list of contaminants not scheduled to be released until 2007 or later. Among the pervasive drinking water contaminants that the EPA has declined to regulate is the rocket fuel component perchlorate, which contaminates over 20 million Americans' drinking water. Over the past four years, the agency also has missed a series of Congressional deadlines for controlling new drinking water contaminants and strengthening current standards, and failed to conduct a pivotal review of the extent of waterborne diseases mandated by Congress in the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments.
Ceding Public Lands to Energy Companies
The natural treasures threatened with oil and gas drilling and related activities as a result of decisions by the Bureau of Land Management over the past year include: Otero Mesa, a unique grassland in southern New Mexico; Nine Mile Canyon, in eastern Utah's West Tavaputs Plateau; the Western Arctic Reserve in northern Alaska; the Jack Morrow Hills in southwest Wyoming; and Valle Vidal, an alpine sanctuary for Rocky Mountain wildlife located near the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico.
The Coming Battles
The effort of Bush environmental agencies to undermine environmental enforcement and weaken key programs seems certain to continue through the coming year. But indications are this will be only a part of the battle. As the Bush administration evaluates where it stands at the midpoint, there is every indication that in its second term it will seek a more lasting legacy of change in the way our environment is treated.
In his first term, President Bush was largely unsuccessful in Congress with his ambitious proposals for overhauling the nation's environmental laws. With the notable exception of damaging forest legislation, which was enacted under the guise of fighting fires, other major legislative proposals fell by the wayside, including those concerning energy, air policy, and endangered species. As a result, the president increasingly turned to administrative actions. Some of these actions were withdrawn after public outcries; others were overturned in the courts as illegal under environmental laws.
Now with expanded majorities to work with in the House and Senate, it appears that the Bush administration and its industry allies will more aggressively pursue permanent weakening changes by rewriting the statutes in Congress and packing the courts with extremists unreceptive to our environmental laws.
The most contentious early Congressional battles on the environment will likely include:
There is good reason to expect a reprise of the energy fights of the past two Congresses. The White House and its allies will push to further relax the environmental safeguards applying to energy development on public lands, and to grant huge subsidies to the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear industries. Environmental forces will promote provisions to enhance energy efficiency, expand the use renewable energy, and reduce America's reliance on oil. The stakes are especially high because a bad energy bill might underwrite dramatic increases in fossil fuel use for years to come, making it far more difficult to enhance our reliance on cleaner energy and address the global warming problem.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Advocates of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are fully aware that they do not have the votes to make drilling legal through, for example, authorizing Arctic drilling in energy legislation. Instead drilling proponents are expected to turn to budget legislation where special rules apply, allowing them to shortcut the legislative process by bypassing filibusters. This means there will likely be a two-stage battle, with an initial engagement around the Congressional budget resolution in the spring or summer of 2005, and a possible second battle in the context of the so-called budget reconciliation legislation, which may move forward in the summer or fall of 2005. The Arctic refuge is critically important to protect both for its own irreplaceable natural value, and because opening the refuge to drilling would pave the way for an assault on other public wildlands in refuges, forests, and parks throughout America.
The most contentious and high-profile environmental battle of the coming Congress may well surround the Bush administration's effort to fundamentally rewrite and weaken the Clean Air Act. The leading edge of this initiative will be the administration's proposal to weaken the law's new source review program and relax requirements for control of mercury pollution from power plants, currently promoted under the label "Clear Skies." Once the Clean Air Act is in play, industry forces will almost certainly advocate a range of additional weakening changes to reduce their obligations under the law. Environmentalists will of course promote strengthening amendments to remedy some of the most glaring regulatory excesses of the Bush administration's EPA, and to better address important new problems like global warming.
Unlike past Bush administration environmental battles, which often occurred below the public radar, the effort to weaken the Clean Air Act will involve public hearings, open debates, and public voting, and is likely to prompt substantial media scrutiny.
One of the earliest environmental battles in the coming Congress may involve efforts to weaken the nation's premier wildlife protection law, the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Opponents of the law are promoting a broad range of unfortunate changes, including proposals that would make it harder to add new species to the list of endangered and threatened wildlife, eliminate protection for critical habitat, and weaken the legal tools environmental advocates have relied on to ensure protection for imperiled wildlife. Legislation seems likely to move first in the House of Representatives, since last year two anti-ESA bills were voted out of the House Resources Committee, which is chaired by California Republican Richard Pombo.
Environmental Exemptions for the Defense Department
Having recently secured exemptions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and key provisions of the ESA, the Department of Defense (DOD) is now prepared to up the ante by seeking blanket exemptions from key health protection laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Superfund statute. Each of these laws already has a special provision allowing the DOD to escape any requirement that might hinder national security, although the DOD has never made an effort to utilize these provisions. This is an important battle because military facilities around the country routinely handle a variety of dangerous substances, including munitions and radioactive materials, which have the potential to cause a host of serious environmental problems and threaten the health of both civilian and military personnel. This battle appears likely to occur in the context of legislation authorizing funding for the military.
Beyond these policy battles, a new arena for major environmental engagement may emerge in the Senate's consideration of judicial nominees. With the administration stretching credulity in its efforts to redefine environmental laws to require less and less protection, the courts have proven a vital last refuge for preserving the integrity of our landmark statutes. In key recent cases, federal courts have, for example, sustained environmental objections to Bush policies concerning clean air, energy efficiency, clean water; snowmobile access to Yellowstone National Park, the disposal of high-level nuclear waste; policies surrounding energy development in public wildlands; and the Navy's deployment of a new form of sonar that threatens marine mammals.
Given this pattern of disregard for environmental laws by government agencies, the continued independence and integrity of the judiciary is crucially important. If nominees to influential courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and the Supreme Court, have records suggesting a hostility to environmental statutes, environmental forces are likely to invest heavily to make environmental and public health issues a key part of the Senate confirmation battles.
With permanent changes to our environmental protections hanging in the balance, the stakes will be higher than ever in the coming year. Only through an alert media and an informed and mobilized citizenry, can environmental forces hope to hold the line in these important engagements.
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
- Climate polluter minority interests find tough sledding against the rise of clean energy bipartisan majorities in the states
- posted by Pierre Bull, 2/7/14
- Oh, The Places You Won't Go: House Drops Housing + Transportation Bill
- posted by Deron Lovaas, 7/31/13
- Botching the Budget, Ignoring the Infrastructure Debt
- posted by Deron Lovaas, 6/28/13
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.