Bush Officials Moving Fast to Cut Environmental Protections

Published on
by
McClatchy Newspapers

Bush Officials Moving Fast to Cut Environmental Protections

by
Renee Schoof

Not done making a mess of the world yet. US President George W. Bush walks away after discussing the transition with the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama with staff members, on the South Lawn of the White House, November 6, 2008. In the next few weeks, the Bush administration is expected to relax environmental-protection rules on power plants near national parks, uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and more mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)

WASHINGTON - In the next few weeks, the Bush administration is
expected to relax environmental-protection rules on power plants near
national parks, uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and more
mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.

The administration is widely expected to try to get some of the rules
into final form by the week before Thanksgiving because, in some cases,
there's a 60-day delay before new regulations take effect. And once the
rules are in place, undoing them generally would be a more
time-consuming job for the next Congress and administration.

The
regulations already have had periods of public comment, and no further
comments are being taken. The administration has proposed the rules and
final approval is considered likely.

It's
common for administrations to issue a spate of regulations just before
leaving office. The Bush administration's changes are in keeping with
President Bush's overall support of deregulation.

Here's a look at some changes that are likely to go into effect before the inauguration.

GRAND CANYON

Higher
prices for uranium, driven by expanded interest in nuclear power, have
resulted in thousands of mining claims being filed on land within three
miles of the Grand Canyon.

The House of Representatives and
Senate natural resources committees have the authority under the
Federal Land Policy and Management Act to order emergency withdrawals
of federal land from future mining claims for three years, while
Congress decides whether a permanent ban is needed. The House committee
issued such a withdrawal order in June for about 1 million acres near
the Grand Canyon, including the land the claims were filed on.

Now
the Department of Interior has proposed scrapping its own rule that
puts such orders from the congressional committees into practice.

The
Interior Department could decide to use its own power to halt new
claims, but it doesn't see any emergency that would prompt such action,
department spokesman Chris Paolino said. The department would require
environmental impact studies before it approved any mining on the
claims, he added.

One of the main hazards from uranium mining is
seepage from tailings piles that poisons water. A report for the
Arizona Department of Game and Fish said people would be at risk if
they ingested radium-226, arsenic and other hazardous substances from
water and tainted fish.

Environmental groups say the government
must consider the possible danger of uranium leaching into the Colorado
River, a source of drinking water for Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los
Angeles. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano in March urged Interior
Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to halt new claims and order a study of
uranium mining near the canyon.

MOUNTAINTOP-REMOVAL COAL MINING

Another
proposed rule change from the Department of Interior would change rules
on dumping the earth removed for mining into nearby streams.

The
current rule, dating from the Reagan administration, says that no
surface mining may occur within 100 feet of a stream unless there'd be
no harm to water quality or quantity. The rule change essentially would
eliminate the buffer by allowing the government to grant waivers so
that mining companies can dump the rubble from mountaintops into
valleys, burying streams.

The new rule would let companies
explain why they can't avoid dumping into streams and how they intend
to minimize harm. A September report on the proposal by the
department's Office of Surface Mining said that environmental concerns
would be taken into account "to the extent possible, using the best
technology currently available."

The government and mining
companies have been ignoring the buffer since the 1990s, said Joan
Mulhern, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm for
environmental protection.

Before the rule can be changed,
however, the Department of Interior must get written approval from
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson.

"In
order to concur, the EPA would have to find that the activities
authorized by the rule would not violate water-quality standards, and
all the evidence is to the contrary," Mulhern said.

AIR POLLUTION

Two rule changes would apply to electric power plants and other stationary sources of air pollution.

The
first mainly concerns older power plants. Under the Clean Air Act,
plants that are updated must install pollution-control technology if
they'll produce more emissions. The rule change would allow plants to
measure emissions on an hourly basis, rather than their total yearly
output. This way, plants could run for more hours and increase overall
emissions without exceeding the threshold that would require additional
pollution controls.

The other change would make it easier for
companies to build polluting facilities near national parks and
wilderness areas. It also would change the way that companies must
measure the impact of their pollution.

ENDANGERED SPECIES

The
Endangered Species Act prohibits any federal actions that would
jeopardize the existence of a listed species or "adversely modify"
critical habitats. The 1973 law has helped save species such as the
bald eagle from extinction.

Bush administration officials have
argued that the act can't be used to protect animals and habitats from
climate change by regulating specific sources of greenhouse gas
emissions.

A proposed rule change would allow federal agencies to
decide for themselves whether timber sales, new dams or other projects
harm wildlife protected under the act. In many cases, they'd no longer
have to consult the agencies that are charged with administering the
Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National
Marine Fisheries Service.

OTHERS

Among the
rule changes and plans that might become final are commercial oil-shale
leasing, a new rule that would allow loaded, concealed weapons in some
national parks, and oil and gas leasing on wild public lands in West
Virginia and Utah.

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