New moves by the Bush administration to lift regulations on logging companies
and big industrial polluters have been denounced by environmentalists, who say
an unprecedented assault is being made on 30 years of legislation protecting America's
forests, water, air and seashores.
Two low-key announcements in the past week, apparently timed to minimize media
coverage, have removed environment-friendly provisions from the Clean Air Act
and from rules governing the management of specially designated national forests.
The White House has also given tacit approval to the incursion of oil prospectors
and mining companies in a number of national parks. Oil and gas drilling has already
started in one previously protected area, the Padre Island National Seashore in
south-west Texas, and is likely to be approved soon in other parks in Ohio, Texas
A congressional showdown is expected over the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge in Alaska, where unspoiled wilderness is vulnerable to energy exploitation
because the Republicans control the House and Senate after this month's mid-term
elections. Environmental lobby groups said yesterday the election victories appeared
to have emboldened the President and revived ambitions to rewrite the environmental
Gregory Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington environmental
lobby group, said of the latest measures: "Sadly, there is every reason to believe
that this is just the leading edge of an assault on fundamental protections for
our air, water and public health."
The first new announcement, made late last Friday, knocked out a central pillar
of the Clean Air Act that forced companies to make additions to older factories
to upgrade the level of protection against air pollution at the same time. The
second announcement removed almost all federal oversight of forest management.
Supervisors of the country's 155 national forests will now decide whether to authorize
drilling, logging or mining, almost irrespective of legislation protecting wildlife
species or old trees.
In many areas, environmentalists say, Forest Service officials are already
beholden to powerful local industry forces and are likely to cave in to their
interests. "They are pulling out the strongest single element in the law that
assures that forests will be managed in a healthy manner," said Rodger Schlickeisen,
president of Defenders of Wildlife.
When oil and gas exploration is the issue, decision-making power in many areas
is already in the hands of local authorities. The federal government has the power
to veto commercial exploitation, but the Bush administration chose not to exercise
that power when approval was given this month to build two natural gas wells on
the Padre Island National Seashore. Eighteen-wheeler trucks have since been rumbling
right up to the sand dunes where a rare breed of turtle usually nests and hatches
its young. What was once a 65-mile stretch of unspoiled barrier island
the longest in the world is now rapidly turning into an industrial zone.
There is also a question mark over the White House's top environmental regulator,
Christine Todd Whitman. She is thought to have fought unsuccessfully to prevent
the latest anti-environmental measures, just as she fought unsuccessfully to maintain
Washington's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. In an editorial
this week, The New York Times urged her not to resign, saying she was the
environmentalists' only advocate within the administration.
The Bush administration has shown it is not immune to some environmental appeals.
Last year, it vetoed two projects in Florida, where the President's brother, Governor
Jeb Bush, happened to be facing a tough re-election battle.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd