SAN FRANCISCO - As George Bush's presidency draws to an end, watchdog groups are calling for President-elect Barack Obama's administration to fully fund federal agencies that relaxed monitoring of water, air quality and the safety of the food supply and consumer products in the past eight years.
Agencies charged with protecting public health and natural resources from pollution - the EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Geological Survey and the Consumer Product Safety Commission - suffered drastic budget cuts or were thwarted from carrying out their missions, the groups say.
At the same time that the Environmental Protection Agency allowed businesses to reduce reporting of toxic waste releases, it and other agencies also eliminated or downsized more than a dozen essential monitoring programs, according to researchers at environmental groups that have asked Obama to redress the problems.
Representatives of the EPA didn't respond to general criticisms of the agency's past performance in protecting the public, but a spokesman for Obama's transition team said the new administration will address the issues.
"The president-elect made it clear throughout the campaign that restoring scientific integrity and environmental protection will be a top priority of the Obama administration," said spokesman Reid Cherlin. "He strongly believes that we can't afford to ignore these problems any longer and that we need to restore the protections that ensure clean air, clean water and responsible stewardship of public lands."
In a report released last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council listed examples of troubling policies under Bush, including:
-- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's discontinuation of a program that tracks health effects from accidents involving hazardous chemicals. In 2005, there were 69 deaths from chemical releases reported in 15 states, but no reports have been publicly released since then.
Funds to respond to outbreaks of food-borne bacteria are down $2 million from 2004 levels, and funds for the program that measures some 100 chemicals in people around the nation have decreased 18 percent from 2002 to 2008. Grants to help 33 states with their programs, including those in California, have also been cut.
-- Budget cuts to the U.S. Geological Survey that eliminated or reduced decades-old testing of streams, lakes and groundwater for pesticides, pharmaceuticals, selenium, mercury, bacteria and other contaminants. In the last eight years, monitoring sites have been reduced from 496 in 2000 to 113 in 2008.
-- The failure to appoint the full slate of three commissioners to the Consumer Product Safety Commission needed to adopt rules, mandatory recalls and other enforcement actions for months-long periods in 2007 and this year. The commission's staff in 2007 was less than half of the peak staffing in 1980, according to the Consumer Federation of America. A small staff means fewer inspections for lead and other safety problems in children's toys.
Watchdog groups Public Citizen and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a commission decision that would allow the sale of children's products containing plastic-softening phthalates beyond February, when the federal law prohibiting them goes into effect. Julie Vallese, the agency director, said the commission would have halted sales in February and stopped manufacturing had the law used the word "ban."
-- EPA changes to the landmark public right-to-know Toxic Release Inventory in 2006, under which businesses may discharge up to 500 pounds a year of dangerous chemicals that persist in the environment and accumulate in the body before they have to fully report them.
If the chemicals were emitted, businesses had to report amounts and locations to the public. For other toxic chemicals, businesses have not been required to report emissions below 2,000 pounds a year. Amounts greater than 500 pounds a year have had to be reported in full.
In the past decade, the EPA has cut in half the number of lead monitors around industrial sites. Sites emitting 500 pounds of lead a year are not required to be monitored, while monitoring used to be required at 1,000 pounds a year.
The agency has proposed exempting large livestock operations, or "factory farms," from reporting ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other emissions from the waste. The EPA has established a lead- monitoring plan to "reduce the burden to states but still assure monitoring" around sources that might violate the law. The agency decided to exempt livestock operations because it thought it was better to focus on the most serious hazardous releases, officials said.
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, environmental health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and an author of the report, said, "Not testing or tracking pollution doesn't make it go away. It just keeps us in the dark about real health threats."
Rolling back rules
Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the American Center for Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank, said the Bush administration rolled back regulations that protected public welfare while "also hampering the public's ability to learn what harm had been caused."
The strategy was part of the administration's "war on science," Hendricks said. "The administration hurt our ability to make good decisions based on good data."
During this year's presidential campaign, Obama said he would return scientific integrity to the EPA and he wanted regulations that were written by scientists - not by lobbyists.
Among the candidates for new EPA administrator is Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. She was an assistant administrator for the EPA under the Clinton administration and California's Secretary of Resources under former Gov. Gray Davis.
No easy turnaround
But it won't be easy for the new president to turn around eight years of agency dismantling, said David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. Orr attended a meeting with Obama adviser John Podesta on energy and environment issues before the election and is familiar with a 391-page document that environmental groups sent to Obama's team last month.
Faced with financial and environmental deficits, the Obama administration will have to make the case that good environmental policy is always good economic policy, Orr said.
"The Bush administration has cut and defunded a good bit of the regulatory apparatus, twisted the law, lowered morale and confidence in the agencies and, on the way out the door, imploded the economy. It's going to be awfully hard for the next administration to get the house in order again," Orr said. "It will take years to restore the critical environmental agencies."