President George Bush tried to look outdoorsy for an Earth Day photo-op in the Adirondack Mountains, but his environmental policies are being assailed by environmentalists, leading Democrats and others.

Political commentators expect environmental issues to be among the hot political battles in the 2002 elections.

“Our landmark environmental laws face the gravest challenge since the assaults of the Newt Gingrich Congress of 1995, and perhaps ever,” Gregory Wetstone, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) director of advocacy, said recently.

“The threat this time is more insidious, and potentially more dangerous. The Bush administration is quietly subverting federal agency rules that translate environmental laws into specific requirements for industry.”

The NRDC says the administration intensified its efforts after Sept. 11, when public attention was diverted by the war on terrorism., a coalition of 16 national environmental groups, charges the White House with spearheading a coordinated effort to “identify and target environmental regulations that industry finds most objectionable.”

In his Earth Day speech, Bush trumpeted his “Clear Skies” plan as one that will give companies “flexibility to find the best ways” to meet air pollution limits. But environmental experts say the Bush plan will actually allow more industrial air pollution than the existing Clean Air Act.

Under the Bush plan, the amount of coal electric power companies burn will increase by 7.3 percent, according to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis.

“It makes no sense to replace … effective programs with one that increases coal emissions,” said John Walke, director of NRDC’s clean air program. “The ‘Clear Skies’ initiative is a prime example of how coal state politics, not public health, is driving the administration’s policy.”

Bush also wants to weaken the Clean Water Act by allowing mining and other companies to fill wetlands, streams and other waters with waste materials. A national battle is raging over the Bush administration’s proposal to make Yucca Mountain, Nev., the nation’s nuclear waste dump.

There are major concerns about groundwater contamination from leaking radioactive waste and dangers posed by transporting up to 100,000 radioactive waste shipments through 44 states and the District of Columbia.

On April 8, Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed Bush’s recommendation to open the facility, citing the many safety concerns. His veto triggered a 90-day deadline for Congress to act.

The Republican-dominated House is expected to support Bush’s plan, but the real battle will be in the Senate.

On another front, environmental groups and Democrats charge the Bush administration with drastically slowing toxic waste site cleanups and shifting the cost from corporate polluters to taxpayers. Under the Superfund program, created by Congress in 1980 to clean up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites, the costs were borne primarily by the polluters, in part through special environmental taxes on corporations.

Now, Bush is opposing reauthorization of these “polluter-pay” taxes and wants taxpayers to cover the gap. In place of the 75 sites slated to be cleaned up in 2001 and 65 targeted for this year, the administration downsized to only 47 cleanups in 2001 and 40 in 2002.

“The Bush administration is only interested in providing relief to the polluters,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s clean water program. “Meanwhile, citizens are getting stuck with the mess and the cleaning bill. What’s wrong with this picture?”

Battles are raging over numerous Bush administration efforts to open public lands to corporate interests, including efforts to allow mining, oil and gas development and unregulated off-road vehicle use at some national monuments, and to allow commercial logging, invasive road construction and oil and gas drilling in national forests and grasslands.

In its 2001 Presidential Report Card, the League of Conservation Voters gave Bush a D- for poor environmental performance during his first year in office. The coming months will see mounting campaigns to defeat the Bush anti-environmental agenda and elect pro-environment candidates this fall.

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.