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White House Stymies EPA Mission

Both Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency were born in 1970, created from the need to clean up and protect our environment. While Earth Day draws public awareness, the EPA is the federal agency ultimately responsible for the day-to-day protection of our environment. On this Earth Day, I think it is fitting to examine the way the Bush administration is undermining the EPA’s years of hard-won achievements in carrying out and enforcing our nation’s bipartisan environmental laws.

The EPA’s mission is to “protect human health and safeguard the natural environment — air, water, and land …” The Bush administration is retreating from the EPA’s mission and instead making politically driven decisions that benefit polluters at the expense of the American public. At a time when we should be strengthening our environmental protections, the Bush administration has taken steps to weaken our environmental protections and the enforcement of our existing environmental laws.

There seems to be a three-step plan from this administration: Try to pass weak environmental legislation, seek to weaken agency regulations, and if all else fails, cut the enforcement budget to disable agency compliance efforts.

A quick review of the administration’s failure to clean up air pollution highlights the trend.

The EPA should be taking action to clean up mercury pollution from power plants, but the Bush administration has failed to do so. Mercury pollution has poisoned the fish in millions of acres of lakes and thousands of miles of streams. According to EPA scientists, approximately 630,000 infants are born in the United States each year with blood-mercury levels at unsafe levels.

As required by the Clean Air Act, in December 2000, the EPA determined it was appropriate and necessary to regulate mercury emissions from power plants, the single largest source of mercury in the United States. In December 2003, when the EPA released its proposal for controlling mercury, it was shockingly inadequate. The Clean Air Act requires a much larger reduction in mercury pollution, in much less time, than the EPA’s proposal.

Tellingly, this proposal is exactly what the power industry wanted. In fact, parts of the administration’s mercury proposal were literally copied from memos prepared by industry lobbyists. Last month’s Los Angeles Times article revealed that EPA staff were told not to perform studies on the costs and public health benefits of more stringent mercury-reduction proposals even though such studies were requested by the expert panel tasked with recommending an appropriate regulation. Also shocking is that the White House apparently made considerable changes to the EPA’s mercury proposal before its release, minimizing the health risks of mercury exposure.

In addition, the Bush administration has failed to require power plants to install modern pollution controls. In August 2003, the EPA finalized a rule that significantly weakens the Clean Air Act by allowing thousands of old power plants to make upgrades to their plants without installing pollution controls. If the EPA’s rule stands up to current legal challenges, these power plants and factories will be allowed to continue polluting the air with no responsibility for the resulting damage to the American people. According to technical studies using EPA models, the result will be at least 4,300 premature deaths and at least 80,000 asthma attacks each year that could otherwise be prevented by simply requiring modern pollution controls.

The EPA should be taking action to address global warming, but the Bush administration has refused to address this important issue. A report by the U.S. National Research Council, commissioned by the Bush administration, confirmed that greenhouse gases are increasing the temperatures of the Earth’s air and oceans, primarily caused by human activity. There is overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gases must be reduced to slow global warming.

Yet, in March 2001, the Bush administration refused to take any responsibility for reducing global warming when it rejected the Kyoto Protocol. The administration then announced last summer that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, reversing a Bush campaign promise and a legal opinion issued by the EPA general counsel under the Clinton administration.

Rather than taking real action, the Bush administration’s answer to air pollution has been to introduce its so-called “Clear Skies” initiative, which environmental experts say would actually result in weaker standards for controlling pollution from power plants than fully enforcing existing law.

Bruce Buckheit, former director of the EPA’s air enforcement division, states he is “deeply troubled by the current state of federal environmental enforcement,” and noted the program is now “on life support.”

“Commencing with the creation of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance in 1994 and accelerating in the 1996-2000 timeframe,” Buckheit said. “EPA was building a robust enforcement program that targeted and prosecuted the most serious environmental scofflaws. … These violations involved significant unlawful emissions with identifiable adverse health impacts. Appropriate resolution of these violations would result in a reduction in national pollution levels — not by a few tons — but by several million tons per year and save thousands of lives each year.

“We were embarked on a vigorous program that was beginning to show results,” Buckheit said. “Within 90 days of the departure of the prior administration, the Bush administration began transmitting a clear message to industry that there was a new sheriff in town — a sheriff that did not intend to prosecute these kinds of cases.”

The administration’s failure to enforce environmental laws extends beyond the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s own research shows that polluters are egregiously violating the Clean Water Act. According to EPA data, 60 percent of large facilities across the country exceeded their Clean Water Act permit at least once between January 2002 and June 2003. Large facilities that exceed their permits are dumping, on average, six times more pollution into our waterways than what they are allowed. In spite of these facts, the EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act is declining.

For fiscal 2005, the administration proposes cutting the EPA’s overall budget by $606 million. This will result in more than 2,600 fewer inspections for violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other environmental laws than were conducted in fiscal 2000.

I commend EPA’s dedicated professionals who have, through hard work, made significant progress in cleaning up air and water pollution. Unfortunately, I believe the Bush administration is undermining the ability of EPA staff to do their jobs effectively.

As Buckheit notes, “EPA employees are ready and willing” to enforce the law but “the White House will not tolerate more than tokenism when it comes to environmental law enforcement.”

The Bush administration continues to put the interests of polluters first, undercutting the EPA’s tools for protecting our air, water and land. The federal government owes a responsibility to all Americans to strengthen, not weaken, our environment. We must take action to clean up air and water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA must be empowered — and provided the resources —to carry out its mission. Future generations deserve the opportunity to look back at Earth Day 2004 from the perspective of a cleaner and stronger environment.

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) is ranking member of the Government Reform subcommittee on energy policy, natural resources and regulatory affairs.

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