The Ungreening of America: Dirty Secrets

No president has gone after the nation’s environmental laws with the same fury as George W. Bush — and none has been so adept at staying under the radar.

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IN THE EARLY 1980s you didn’t need to be a member of EarthFirst! to know that Ronald Reagan was bad for the environment. You didn’t even have to be especially politically aware. Here was a man who had, after all, publicly stated that most air pollution was caused by plants.*

By contrast, while George W. Bush gets low marks on the environment from a majority of Americans, few fully appreciate the scope and fury of this administration’s anti-environmental agenda. “What they’re doing makes the Reagan administration look innocent,” says Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. The Bush administration has been gutting key sections of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, laws that have traditionally had bipartisan support and have done more to protect the health of Americans than any other environmental legislation. It has crippled the Superfund program, which is charged with cleaning up millions of pounds of toxic industrial wastes such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and vinyl chloride in more than 1,000 neighborhoods in 48 states. It has sought to cut the EPA’s enforcement division by nearly one-fifth, to its lowest level on record; fines assessed for environmental violations dropped by nearly two-thirds in the administration’s first two years; and criminal prosecutions-the government’s weapon of last resort against the worst polluters-are down by nearly one-third.

The administration has abdicated the decades-old federal responsibility to protect native animals and plants from extinction, becoming the first not to voluntarily add a single species to the endangered species list. It has opened millions of acres of wilderness-including some of the nation’s most environmentally sensitive public lands-to logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling. Under one plan, loggers could take 10 percent of the trees in California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument; many of the Monument’s old-growth sequoias, 200 years old and more, could be felled to make roof shingles. Other national treasures that have been opened for development include the million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, the 2,000-foot red-rock spires at Fisher Towers, Utah, and dozens of others.

And then, of course, the White House has all but denied the existence of what may be the most serious environmental problem of our time, global warming. After campaigning on a promise to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, Bush made an abrupt about-face once elected, calling his earlier pledge “a mistake” and announcing that he would not regulate CO2 emissions from power plants-even though the United States accounts for a fourth of the world’s total industrial CO2 emissions. Since then, the White House has censored scientific reports that mentioned the subject, walked away from the Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and even, at the behest of ExxonMobil, engineered the ouster of the scientist who chaired the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So why aren’t more people aware that George W. Bush is compiling what is arguably the worst environmental record of any president in recent history? The easy explanations-that environmental issues are complex, that war and terrorism push most other concerns off the front pages-are only part of the story. The real reason may be far simpler: Few people know the magnitude of the administration’s attacks on the environment because the administration has been working very hard to keep it that way.

Like any successful commander in chief, Bush knows that putting the right person in the right place is the key to winning any war. This isn’t just a matter of choosing business-friendly appointees for top positions. That’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Republican administrations. What makes this administration different is the fact that it is filled with anti-regulatory zealots deep into its rank and file-and these bureaucrats, unlike James Watt, are politically savvy and come from the very industries they’re charged with regulating. The result is an administration uniquely effective at implementing its ambitious pro-industry agenda-with a minimum of public notice.

Take the case of mountaintop-removal coal mining. As the name implies, this method-the predominant form of strip mining in much of Appalachia-involves blasting away entire mountaintops to get at coal seams below and dumping the resulting rubble, called “spoil,” into adjacent valleys. In some cases, valleys two miles long have been completely filled with spoil. Opponents had hoped that a court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would crack down on the practice, which has buried at least 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of woodland that the EPA describes as “unique in the world” for their biological diversity. But when the Bush administration released the EIS this spring, it not only gave mountaintop removal a clean bill of health; it also relaxed what few meaningful environmental protections existed and focused on how to help mining companies obtain permits more easily.

So how did a process mandated by a federal judge “to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects” from mountaintop removal become a vehicle for industry? Two words: Steven Griles. Never heard of him? You’re not supposed to. Steven Griles is one of industry’s moles within the Bush administration. Before coming to work as deputy secretary of the Interior, Griles was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, with a long list of energy-industry clients, including the National Mining Association and several of the country’s largest coal companies. On August 1, 2001, Griles signed a “statement of disqualification,” promising to stay clear of issues involving his former clients. Despite that promise, according to his own appointment calendar (obtained by environmental groups through the Freedom of Information Act), Griles met repeatedly with coal companies while the administration worked on the mountaintop-removal issue. Griles has denied discussing the “fill rule” in any of those meetings. But on August 4, 2001-three days after signing his recusal letter-he gave a speech before the West Virginia Coal Association, reassuring members that “we will fix the federal rules very soon on water and spoil placement.” Two months later, Griles sent a letter to the EPA and other agencies drafting the EIS, complaining that they were not doing enough to safeguard the future of mountaintop removal and instructing them to “focus on centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting.” Griles is now the subject of an Interior Department investigation for possible ethics violations.

With key positions in the hands of industry veterans, the administration has been able to pursue one of its most effective stealth tactics — steering clear of legislative battles and working instead within the difficult-to-understand, yawn-producing realm of agency regulations. It’s a strategy that has served Bush well, especially in his push to give the energy industry-which donated $2.8 million to the 2000 Bush campaign-access to some of the nation’s last wildlands. In Congress, where the administration’s agenda must endure full public scrutiny, Bush’s effort to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has failed repeatedly. But there was little public debate over a plan to drill 66,000 coalbed methane gas wells in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana-a massive project that will result in 26,000 miles of new roads, 48,000 miles of new pipelines, and discharges of 2 trillion gallons of contaminated water, disfiguring for years the rolling hills of that landscape. That plan was hatched behind closed doors, by the secretive energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Cheney task force is behind another of the administration’s pet projects-protecting utilities from having to comply with a law enacted 26 years ago. Some 30,000 Americans die each year because the federal government is unwilling to take meaningful steps to enforce the Clean Air Act’s standards for coal-fired power plants. Nearly 6,000 of those deaths are attributable to plants owned by a mere eight companies, according to a study by ABT Associates, which frequently conducts assessments for the EPA. (The companies are American Electric Power, Cinergy, Duke, Dynegy, FirstEnergy, SIGECO, Southern Company, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.)

When Congress passed the current air-pollution standards in 1977, it grandfathered in these aging plants and some 16,000 other industrial facilities around the country. Under a provision known as New Source Review, the plants could perform routine maintenance without having to install cleaner technologies, but any substantive changes or expansions leading to increased emissions would force the operators to meet the new standards. The grace period was expected to last just a few years-a reasonable compromise, it must have seemed to Congress at the time. Yet, for nearly three decades these facilities have gotten around the New Source Review rules by continually expanding and calling it “routine maintenance.”

In 1999, the EPA’s then-director of enforcement, Eric Schaeffer, tried something radically new: He actually enforced the law. The agency filed suit against eight power companies that together emitted one-fifth of the nation’s total output of sulfur dioxide-a deadly compound that is also the leading cause of acid rain. Soon, violators started lining up to negotiate settlements. By the end of 2000, two of the largest power companies had agreed to cut emissions by two-thirds. And then George W. Bush took office. The new administration immediately leaked its intentions to expand, rather than close, the New Source Review loophole (see “No Clear Skies“). By March 2002, EPA administrator Christine Whitman was telling Congress that if she were an attorney for one of the companies sued by the agency, “I would not settle anything.” Not surprisingly, the two tentative agreements the EPA had worked out evaporated.

Meanwhile, in a classic bit of greenwashing, the White House has released a plan called “Clear Skies” that will, in President Bush’s words, “dramatically reduce pollution from power plants.” In fact, Clear Skies would gut the standards of the Clean Air Act, allowing companies to wait 15 more years to install state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment-and even then, power plants would be emitting far more pollution than allowed under current law, for a total of 450,000 tons of additional nitrogen oxide, 1 million tons of sulfur dioxide, and 9.5 tons of mercury annually.

The administration also wants to sink millions into reviving the dying nuclear industry, increasing by 50 percent the number of nuclear plants currently operating in the United States. That’s no small feat, given that not a single new plant has been ordered for two and a half decades-not since the nation held its breath in 1979, waiting to find out if a nuclear doomsday scenario was unfolding at Three Mile Island. Industry officials insist that with today’s improved technology such a calamity is unthinkable. But that hasn’t stopped the administration from endorsing a $9 billion cap on industry liability, just in case the unthinkable should occur. Other gifts to nuclear-plant operators include more than $1 billion in new subsidies and tax breaks, support for relicensing dangerously outdated reactors, and at least $18 billion in taxpayer money for construction of a high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

JUST BEFORE SHE STEPPED DOWN last summer, EPA head Whitman issued a “state of the environment” report that fairly rhapsodized about the significance of environmental protection: “Pristine waterways [and] safe drinking waters are treasured resources,” one passage declared. “The nation has made significant progress in protecting these resources in the last 30 years.”

What Whitman did not mention was that the administration has spent two years attempting to eviscerate the law that brought about most of that progress-the Clean Water Act of 1972. In January 2003, the administration proposed new rules for managing the nation’s wetlands, removing 20 percent of the country’s remaining swamps, ponds, and marshes from federal protection. And wetlands are only the beginning: A close reading of the proposed rules shows that the administration is attempting to change the definition of “waters of the United States” to exclude up to 60 percent of the country’s rivers, lakes, and streams from protection, giving industries permission to pollute, alter, fill, and build on all of these waterways (see “Down Upon the Suwannee“). “No president since the Clean Water Act was passed has proposed getting rid of it on the majority of waters of the U.S.,” notes Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice-and Bush might not have tried either, had he been forced to justify the move in congressional debate rather than burying it in bureaucratic rule-making.

Even when it seems to bow to environmental concerns, the administration often manages to leave a back door open for industry. This summer, after more than two years of foot-dragging and resistance in court, the Department of Agriculture finally accepted a Clinton-era rule placing more than 58 million acres of national forests off limits to road building (and thus logging). But it added two caveats: Governors could obtain exemptions for federal forests inside their borders (as several have already done); and the rule wouldn’t apply in much of Alaska, where the largest stretches of roadless wild forest are located. In June, Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey-a veteran timber lobbyist who is now the chief architect of the nation’s forest policy-announced that nearly 3 million acres of land could be opened to timber sales in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the planet’s largest pristine temperate rainforest and home to several species of animals found nowhere else on earth.

The White House has also been darkly brilliant at using the courts to do its dirty work-through methods such as “sweetheart suits,” the practice of encouraging states and private groups to file lawsuits against the federal government, and then agreeing to negotiated settlements that bypass environmental laws without any interference from Congress or the public. In perhaps the most egregious such case, in April the state of Utah and the Interior Department announced that they had reached a settlement involving 10 million acres of federal lands set aside in the 1990s for possible wilderness designation. The deal will allow Utah to sell oil and gas rights on what had largely been pristine areas, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with its multihued cliffs and Cedar Mesa, a fragile desert area near Monument Valley that holds world-renowned archaeological sites-and that is now slated to host a jeep safari.

Two days after the first settlement with Utah-in another closed-door deal-Interior Secretary Gale Norton signed a second, more sweeping compact promising that the federal government would never again so much as study lands for wilderness designation. And not just in Utah: The decision, which effectively freezes a wilderness-protection program that goes back nearly 40 years, applies to more than 200 million acres of Western lands, an area twice as large as California.

But it’s not just the West’s spectacular scenery that’s threatened, or even the purity of our air and water-as important as those are. By using stealth tactics to pursue a corporate agenda, the Bush administration is undermining the very landscape of democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry, transparency in government, and lively public debate. A culture of deception and deceit erodes all of these-and that is probably the most serious “environmental” damage of all.

*Correction, April 4, 2007: The original opening paragraph of this story erroneously continued, “And then there was Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who saw no need to protect the environment because Jesus was returning any day.” But Watt’s statements about his religious beliefs were taken out of context. On Feb. 5, 1981, Watt told a congressional oversight committee he believed his job was “to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to have the resources needed for future generations.”


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

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