Sounding the Alarm

A Republican environmental icon takes a reasoned swipe at Bush's record.

| Thu Apr. 22, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Hard as it is to believe, many of the nation's most substantive and lasting federal environmental protections were established by a Republican president. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Drinking Water Act – they were all pushed by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. The EPA itself was formed under Nixon , in 1970, as a strong regulatory body with considerable autonomy and a clear commitment to environmental protection.

Over the last three years, the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to overturn many of those gains. The White House has effectively undercut the EPA's autonomy and credibility, by arrogating the EPA's regulatory function and packing the EPA with former industry lobbyists. A panel of Nobel laureates and prominent scientists recently declared in a report that "the Bush administration is, to an unprecedented degree, distorting and manipulating the science meant to assist the formation and implementation of policy."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Under Bush, the EPA has lost nearly one-fifth of the it's enforcement division, the lowest level on record; fines assessed for environmental violations have dropped by nearly two-thirds; and criminal prosecutions, the government's last resort against the worst polluters, are down by nearly one-third.

Even some Republicans are starting to sound the alarm on Bush's environmental record. One of them is Russell Train, one of the major players in the creation of both federal environmental policies and agencies under Nixon, and the second ever EPA chief, and is still active in environmental causes. Train has written a memoir, Politics, Pollution and Pandas, a fascinating memoir of his experiences as an environmentalist, which, on top of his government service, included a stint as head the World Wildlife Fund.

In the book, Train doesn't hold back from criticizing the Bush administration's environmental record. "During my time as EPA administrator," he has said, "I don't recall a single instance of the White House ever, ever interfering with a regulatory decision I had to make." That Train, at 84 a life-long Republican, feels the need to speak out, shows how far environmental policy and regulation have strayed from their early promise.

Train recently sat down with Mother Jones to share his concerns over Bush administration environmental policy.

MotherJones.com: You say Nixon was pro-environment chiefly because he thought it was necessary politically. Bush doesn't seem to share that assumption. What's changed?

Russell Train: Well of course a lot's changed since Nixon. Public attitudes toward the environment probably have changed somewhat. I think there isn't the sense of urgency in the public with respect to environmental problems today as there was back in the beginning of the 1970s. At that time our environmental protection rules were fairly modest in extent and we were just getting into it, and at the same time we were having big air pollution incidents and we had rivers like the Cuyahoga, outside of Cleveland, catching fire, we had the Santa Barbara oil spill. Lots of very dramatic events that really stirred public anxiety and concern.

I say somewhat facetiously that one reason people aren't so anxious about the environment today is that we put a pretty good job back then of putting a lot of protections into place. That's when we had the air and water pollution control acts. And the endangered species act, safe drinking water act. There's a whole myriad of initiatives, many of them taken at the instance of the Nixon White House. I was very much involved in that.

Nixon personally, probably was not an environmentalist. In many ways, I think you could say very few people in those days were environmentalists. But he had a shrewd feel for the public pulse. He knew this was an important issue and he seized it. It sort of showed how the political people in those days recognized that the American people really cared about the environment. I don't think there's a sense of urgency today. Of course right now there are a lot of other things that are all over the press all the time -- none of them, to my mind, as fundamental as the need to protect the human environment and to get human society living in a sustainable way and in harmony with nature.

MJ.com: Do you worry that the path taken by this administration and maybe even the Clinton administration before it, but particularly the Bush administration, is undermining the gains that you and Nixon were responsible for putting in place?

RT: Yes. First, I think this administration if it continues on its present course and certainly if it continues for another 4 years, is going to seriously undermine our environmental protections. Now that very likely will set up a storm reaction on the part of the American people. You do get the big swings of public attitude and I think this is very unfortunate because we need a steady course.

MJ.com: What do you make of the rising concern that science in the Bush administration has become politicized?

RT: Well I think it's terrible. I've taken part in some discussions on this issue. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently filed a report – and I signed on to it -- expressing strong objection to the scientific policies --or lack of them -- in the administration, which have led to distortion of science, or ignoring of science, and interference on the part of the White House and decision-making relating to science; and not only in the scientific area, but in the general regulatory area – certainly in the EPA. During this administration we have heard regulatory decisions announced by the White House. That's very peculiar to me. The White House isn't a regulatory agency; the EPA is. The White House is making political considerations the touchstone of regulatory decisions. We are dealing here with the health and wellbeing of the American people, and politics really shouldn't be a deciding factor. During my time as EPA administrator under both President Nixon and President Ford, which covered a period of well over 3 years, I don't recall a single instance of the White House ever, ever interfering with a regulatory decision I had to make.

The American people badly need an EPA that they can have confidence in and that's credible. White House interference is going to undermine the credibility of the regulatory agency and what is already happening is that your career people, with scientific strength, or technological capacity, tend to become frustrated, and they leave. Again, you get long-term damage, you also, I might add, raise the possibility that new people will be put in to these jobs that have an ideological fix. That would be terrible.

MJ.com: Is there any precedent for this kind of political interference?

RT: Now we see just a steady pattern of behavior in that regard in which the White House is intruding all the time in making regulatory decisions. Today it seems to be commonplace that a whole range of lobbyists and special interests suddenly become appointed to really very high policy-making roles, assistant secretary, under secretary, and so forth. I had no experience with that when I was at EPA. These were solid professional people many of whom had been in government, not lobbyists. Now we see for example in the department of the Interior, the assistant secretary responsible for forest policy is a former top lobbyist of the paper and pulp industry. This is an extraordinary revolution in the way government behaves. And I don't think its right.

MJ.com: What's behind this politicization?

RT: I think there is ideological bias here. I think doubtless it's a payback to special interests who supported the president's election campaign. And I think there's a built-in bias at the top in this administration against the environment.

MJ.com: The Pentagon has now recognized that global climate change is actually a security issue. Does that represent an opening for environmentalists?

RT: I think it does. The risks that we run from climate change are probably far greater risks of long-term damage and destruction to this country than almost any military risk that can be described. I don't think most people appreciate the extent of damage to the economy, the whole fabric of our society if some of these projections that are being made were to come about. People tend to say we can't afford to worry about the environment because we are focused on national security, well, perhaps, as this report says, global warming is a greater threat to national security in the United States than any other possible thing at the present time.

There have been sufficiently reputable studies of this issue by our own National Academy of Scientists for example, that one would look to for guidance in a problem of this kind. And the tendency of this White House has been to brush that off. President Bush described it as the work of bureaucrats. Well, that's not true for one thing, but even if it were, that was a great mistake to brush off a study of that kind. It's going to be hard to get the public's attention and steer this country in a wise way without strong leadership at the top. There's just no question about it. Difficult decisions have to be made.

MJ.com: Could people have an influence?

RT: I think it's very important that the people of this country speak up on this issue. There seems to be a tendency for people to turn off, because there's so much else in terms of news and issues. But this is a fundamental issue.

I'll go back and again quote from my book, Politics, Pollution and Pandas, that Nixon devoted one third of his 1970 State of the Union message the environment, compared to the last State of the Union message which did not have a word on the environment in it, in there Nixon said "the environmental cause is as fundamental as life itself." He was 100 percent right. This is an extremely important matter that will affect the wellbeing, and maybe even ultimately the survival, of future generations.

I recently met with a group of students last week at American University in Washington, and I told them it was vitally important if they were of voting age they should register and make sure their voices were heard. Make a difference.

MJ.com: Do you have any thoughts on how John Kerry would do on the environment?

RT: Kerry has a very good environmental voting record. The League of Conservation Voters, I think, gave him 100 percent rating, which is a little unusual. He's very sensitive to the environmental issue, and he knows a great deal about it. But I'm not taking part in Democratic politics. I still consider myself a Republican. Somebody asked me at another radio interview if I left the Republican Party. I said I didn't feel that way; I said I thought the Republican Party had left me.

MJ.com: Given the Bush administration's record, do you think the environment will be a big issue in the election?

RT: Well I certainly think it could well be. I was surprised in the last election that it played such a small part. In the debate, for example, Gore, who had made sort of a career out of being an environmental advocate, didn't make this a key issue in the campaign at all.

MJ.com: What would you say is the biggest threat to the environment today?

RT: The biggest threat is global warming. That can have impacts on this country that are mind-boggling: Rising sea levels, changing climate, loss of species, destruction of agriculture, drying out of presently very productive agricultural lands. The rest of the developed world, with the exception of Russia, all of Europe, Japan, Canada, has recognized global climate change as an imminent threat. Only the U.S. has refused to do so. At the same time, the United States is contributing more, by far, to the existence of this threat, than any other country on the face of the globe. I think some Europeans would say the biggest threat to the world environment is the U.S. I think it's an unhappy day that the U.S. is not in a position of world leadership on an issue that is of such critical importance.

MJ.com: Do you think the environmental movement is doing all it can to raise awareness?

RT: The fact the country is not really keyed up over this issue leads me to feel the environmental community is not doing enough. I don't think you can put the whole blame on them -- it's a tough one. Every environmental organization has such a huge set of issues to deal with dealing with that the global warming message tends to get lost in the background noise. You can't stop doing all these other things, they are all individually extremely important. But I think maybe we should learn to speak more with one voice on the climate issue.

Certainly the average citizen needs to speak up. But we also need leadership in the government because we have to deal with important issues of fuel economy and our automobile fleet. It's shocking. We're going backwards. We are worse off today then when I was in government 30-some years ago as far as fuel economy is concerned. I happen to be given a ride home last night in a hybrid car that gets 60 miles a gallon -- a car that sells for $20,000. Why don't we go in this direction? It seemed to drive beautifully to me. Obviously we need to make a huge investment, reinvestment on the part of the automobile industry. These are things that have to be transitioned, be extremely wrenching, costly, and probably disruptive to the labor force. But these are issues we have to deal with. And they can be dealt with. The answers are really there, it's not as if we have no idea what to do. It's just a matter of political will.

MJ.com: Is there a free-market case to be made for clean, renewable energy?

RT: Yes, I think to the extent we can harness market forces -- and I think we have to – it's all for the good. But I've never felt that market mechanisms can take the place of regulatory functions. For example if you are dealing with a highly toxic chemical, you don't want to leave that to the market place to decide its use. I think mercury is something that comes into it. The administration's proposal with respect to air emissions of mercury is to leave it to a cap- and-trade approach. Personally I have a farm alongside Chesapeake Bay and I know the impact of airborne mercury on the bay is severe. Most of the fish have high levels of mercury. I think this is something for example, that needs to be regulated, and really not left to market mechanisms.

MJ.com: When you spoke with the students at American University, did you have any voting advice for them?

RT: I think they got the message. I don't think I had to tell them. I make no bones about the fact that I would have great difficulty voting for this administration, or voting for this president. I had very, very high regard for his father. Still do. He's a fine person, served his country well. But I just feel the present situation is intolerable.