WASHINGTON - In the second presidential debate, President Bush said: "I'm a good steward of the land. The quality of the air's cleaner since I've been the president. Fewer water complaints since I've been the president."
Sen. John Kerry responded this way: "The president, I don't think, is living in a world of reality with respect to the environment. We're going backwards." He vows to reverse many of Bush's policies.
Which presidential candidate is right? How has America's environment fared under Bush?
The record is not good.
The word is going out to go easy (on polluters).
Russell Train, who ran the EPA under former Presidents Nixon and Ford
Over the past 30 years, the nation's air and water have become dramatically cleaner, but the steady improvement has stalled or gone into reverse in several areas since Bush took office, according to government statistics. On Bush's watch, America's environment deteriorated in many critical areas - including the quality of air in cities and the quality of water that people drink - and gained in very few.
Knight Ridder compiled 14 pollution-oriented indicators from government and university statistics. Nine of the 14 indicators showed a worsening trend, two showed improvements and three others zigzagged.
Statistics that have worsened:
- Superfund cleanups of toxic waste fell by 52 percent.
- Fish-consumption warnings for rivers doubled.
- Fish-consumption advisories for lakes increased 39 percent.
- The number of beach closings rose 26 percent.
- Civil citations issued to polluters fell 57 percent.
- Criminal pollution prosecutions dropped 17 percent.
- Asthma attacks increased by 6 percent.
- There were small increases in global temperatures and unhealthy air days.
There were signs of pollution improvement, though. Major air-emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes dropped 9 percent, and greenhouse-gas emissions were reduced by 0.5 percent.
Statistics that have fluctuated are the number of people living in smoggy cities; the number of people drinking from tainted water supplies; and overall toxic pollution releases by industry.
In land-use policy under Bush, another 12 indicators reveal record-low additions to national parks, wilderness, wildlife refuges and the endangered species list. The Bush administration also approved 74 percent more permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands in its first three years than were granted in the previous three years.
Bush also has ordered dozens of sweeping changes to existing environmental policies, usually to benefit business interests. He reversed the government's course on global warming, power plant emissions, roadless areas of national forests, environmental law enforcement and agricultural run-off.
Two major Bush administration proposals still languish in Congress. One would change the way air pollution from power plants is regulated, with gradually shrinking limits on emissions and the first-ever limits for mercury pollution. Critics say Bush's approach would require fewer pollution reductions than current law.
The other pending Bush proposal is his energy bill, which calls for more drilling on public lands, including Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - which Kerry has been a leader in opposing.
Kerry vows to reverse Bush's efforts to make it easier for older power plants to expand without additional pollution controls. He promises to "plug loopholes" in industrial air-pollution regulations, limit suburban sprawl and mount a new program to protect America's waterways.
Over nearly two decades in the Senate, Kerry has gotten extremely high marks from environmental groups, including from the League of Conservation Voters. Henry Lee, Harvard University's environment and natural resources program director, said Kerry didn't initiate any environmental legislation that became landmark law, but he often was "out in front on the issue."
If Kerry is friendly with environmental activists, "the Bush administration is sympathetic to the concerns of business," said Eban Goodstein, the chairman of the environmental-studies program at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. "They're bringing in people that are really hostile to the current regulatory framework."
The Bush environmental team says it concentrates more on results than regulations and that, even if enforcement numbers are down, the country is cleaner based on what comes out of industrial smokestacks and sewers. The Bush administration also took steps to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines and slightly increased auto-mileage standards.
Last month, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt touted as "a national success story" statistics showing that major air emissions dropped 9 percent nationwide over the first three years of the Bush administration.
But at the same time, the number of times that air in U.S. cities was declared unhealthy increased from 1,535 in 2000 to 1,656 in 2001 and 2,035 in 2002. And the EPA's inspector general issued a report last month saying that national air-emission reductions don't accurately reflect the stagnating pollution levels in metropolitan areas.
At every Cabinet meeting, according to Leavitt, Bush asks the same four questions: "Is the air cleaner? Is the water more pure? Is the land better protected? And are we doing it in a way that keeps us competitive economically?"
The answers are yes, insists James Connaughton, the director of Bush's Council on Environmental Quality. "We are enjoying the cleanest air in half a century," he says.
But Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who also advises John Kerry, says Bush's power-plant policies are causing more asthma attacks, deaths from lung disease and incidents of mercury contamination from people eating tainted fish.
"This administration is duplicitous," said Carol Browner, who ran the EPA under President Clinton and now advises Kerry. "They are saying, `We're strengthening environmental protections,' when in fact they are weakening protections."
On conservation issues, Bush has set records for presidential inactivity. He made the fewest additions to the national park system, created the least number of wildlife refuges, set aside the smallest amount of new wilderness acres and hasn't established any new national marine sanctuaries.
Connaughton says five new parks and more wilderness land are about to be established.
Bush pays less attention to environmental issues than did his father, who initiated landmark environmental laws, said Dan Esty, the director for the Yale University Center for Environmental Law & Policy who was a senior EPA official under the first President Bush.
The elder Bush protected seven times more endangered species than his son, set aside six times as much wilderness land, created four times as many national parks, established more than three times as many new national wildlife refuges and issued twice as many pollution law citations to companies.
On global warming, President Bush promised in 2000 that he would regulate emissions of carbon dioxide - the chief manmade cause of climate change - from older power plants. Months after taking office he ditched that idea. He withdrew the United States from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from most industrial countries, saying it would hurt the U.S. economy. But Bush is spending record amounts of money on global-warming research.
The Kerry campaign says that's not enough. Kerry promises that, if elected, he'd do "something" about climate change, but says he won't sign the Kyoto Protocol. He promised at the second presidential debate to work toward fixing the Kyoto Protocol, but didn't specify how.
As for the decrease in Superfund cleanups, Connaughton blames that on the remaining sites, saying they're tougher to clean. He said the Bush administration is spending more money on Superfund cleanups, but EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley notes that Superfund spending, when adjusted for inflation, fell 11 percent from 2000 to 2003.
Connaughton calls the rise in beach and fish-consumption warnings good news. It shows increased environmental monitoring, he says.
But others, including some prominent Republican environmentalists, disagree.
"The record is not good," said Russell Train, who ran the EPA under former Presidents Nixon and Ford and who was co-chairman of Conservationists for Bush in 1980. "The word is going out to go easy" on polluters.
Jonathan Adler, a professor of environmental law at Case Western Reserve University, calls such criticism "a terrible exaggeration."
Bush is also repealing a rule that set 58.5 million acres of national forests off limits to industry. And his administration has added the fewest new endangered species to the protection list of any in the last 30 years. Connaughton blames environmentalists' lawsuits and says more species are recovering.
While approvals soar for permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands, the administration has leased less public land to energy companies, concentrating drilling in the Rockies. The number of trees cut in national forests for commercial harvest is down. So is livestock grazing on public lands.
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