A greener White House draws critics

February 28, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- National Audubon Society lobbyist Brock Evans measures the thaw in relations between the federal government and the conservation community not by degrees but by faces -- the ones of environmental activists who got key jobs in the Clinton administration.

"You walk around the White House and say, 'Hi, Julie. Hi, Joe. Hi, Jim,' " remarks Mr. Evans. Having so many friends on high government perches, after 12 years of often hostile Republican rule, "is like daylight compared to night."

From Al Gore, the "green vice president," on down, Bill Clinton has put more environmentalists into government than any other president, according to the League of Conservation Voters. And he's put them in some untraditional places, such as the National Security Council, the White House budget office and the State Department.

Despite their unprecedented access to power, environmental groups are among Mr. Clinton's toughest critics, in much the same way that right-wingers often bashed President Ronald Reagan for allegedly failing to stay true to his conservative principles.

Many environmentalists have not forgiven Mr. Clinton's willingness to sacrifice major conservation proposals during last year's budget fight, a clear sign he that does not want their issues getting in the way of more important goals, such as reforming health care and cutting the deficit.

Still, after a slow start, his appointees are quietly pumping out proposals, rules and regulations that are likely to have a major impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

They cover everything from doubling the number of toxic chemicals that companies must disclose that they emit -- important new information to citizens about the substances in the air, water and soil -- to altering the flow of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in ways that favor whitewater paddlers over electric power customers in Arizona and California.

The administration has been the first to tackle some of the biggest and most difficult environmental problems around. One example: last year's proposal for sweeping changes in the century-old rules that cover grazing, mining and logging on the vast public lands in the West.

Though Mr. Clinton's performance cannot yet be measured on these and other pending issues, such as rewriting the nation's clean water and Superfund toxic cleanup laws, environmentalists appear to be getting their way on more modest, though still significant, matters.

In December, for instance, the administration rescinded a Bush administration proposal for the use of cleaner-burning gasoline in the nation's nine smoggiest cities, including Baltimore. The Bush version, aimed at winning votes from Midwest farmers in the 1992 election, would have required burning more ethanol, a corn byproduct.

Environmentalists argued that ethanol-based gasoline would actually have worsened air pollution in the nine cities.

Instead, the Clinton administration came up with a new plan, which was approved by assistant Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mary D. Nichols, formerly of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group. It calls for the sale of a less polluting -- but more expensive -- corn byproduct in gasoline during summer months. The plan is expected to raise pump prices in the affected cities by 3 to 5 cents a gallon.

Industry loses access

The greening of the federal government is giving fits to industry, which has lost the special access it enjoyed under the Republicans. Last year, the Clinton administration abolished a high-level council, formerly chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, which had allowed businesses to go straight to the White House to head off unwanted federal regulations.

"Now, instead of back channels for industry, they have back channels for environmental groups," says Lee M. Thomas, a former head of the EPA and currently senior vice president of Georgia-Pacific Co.

He protests that environmentalists helped the administration launch its proposed overhaul of the nation's clean water law, while industry representatives were shut out. Chemical companies are angry over a provision of the plan that could sharply reduce the use of chlorine compounds, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive defects.

In the Pacific Northwest, timber companies are claiming that the administration has given environmentalists unprecedented, and possibly illegal, veto power over tree cutting in national forests. Internal U.S. Forest Service memos appear to confirm that the Natural Resources Defense Council was able to review and then block some timber sales in Washington and Oregon.

Agriculture Department spokesmen deny that any outside groups are deciding which trees can be harvested on public lands, but Republican congressmen have asked the department's inspector general to look into the matter.

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