`Greening' of White House in a run-up to Earth Day

Flurry of proposals finds host of skeptics

April 20, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

President Bush and other officials have publicly unveiled at least one pro-environment action every day this week.

But despite this green blitz on the eve of Sunday's Earth Day celebration, the Bush administration has rejected or delayed more than four times as many significant environmental measures as it has approved in its first weeks in office.

Yesterday's announcement was a pledge by the president to support an international treaty banning most overseas uses of a batch of known cancer-causing harmful chemicals dubbed "The Dirty Dozen." The substances, which include the pesticide DDT, have been banned or tightly restricted in the United States, but are still used in developing countries.

The week's events also included a promise by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to take another look at a controversial decision not to cut arsenic levels in the nation's drinking water supply, the unveiling of a new rule requiring any business that emits more than 100 pounds of lead to disclose those emissions, and a commitment to enact new protections for some wetlands threatened by development.

Environmentalists say the Bush team has offered more talk than action so far. The lead requirement, for example, doesn't actually force the companies to reduce their pollution. And the wetlands regulation covers only a few thousand acres nationwide.

"We want this token Texan to know that trashing 30 years of environmental gains, then making a few token announcements for Earth Day is an unacceptable environmental agenda," said Greenpeace's executive director, John Passacantando, one of 10 activists arrested yesterday after chaining themselves to a fence outside EPA headquarters in a protest of administration policies.

Conservatives and pro-business groups are also uneasy about the administration's new posture. They say that until recently, the White House has made good decisions and presented them badly. Now, they say, the administration is making bad decisions that may play well, but will hurt the economy.

"Appeasement strategies never work," said Fred Smith, executive director of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Until this week, Smith said, "they've been on the right side of reality, and they've had really bad rhetoric. ... These are not the most articulate people in the world.

"What they need is a communications strategy that explains what they're doing in a way that makes sense to people who don't pay too much attention," Smith said."

Environmentalists say a communications strategy is just what the White House has unveiled this week.

"It's an attempt at giving themselves an environmental makeover," said Maria Weidner, director of the newly formed White House Watch at Earth Justice, a conservation group specializing in environmental lawsuits. "But environmental protection requires real commitment, not lip service."

The Bush administration's environmental policies have drawn fire since Inauguration Day, when White House chief of staff Andrew Card issued an order blocking new regulations put in place during the last days of the Clinton administration. Some of the rules were placed in permanent limbo; others were delayed for 60 days so that Bush administration officials could reconsider them.

The 60-day delays are now expiring, forcing the EPA, Interior Department and other agencies to make a series of difficult decisions.

"These regulations have been coming fast and furious, and our entire agenda has been driven by them," said Whitman spokeswoman Tina Kreischer. "We know there are more in the pipeline that are going to require decisions soon, but at this point we can't even tell you what they are."

Agency officials say they can't begin to estimate the number of thumbs-up, thumbs-down decisions they have made so far.

But a Sun survey of 15 of the highest-profile cases shows the administration has moved forward with three EPA regulations that tighten environmental protections - the wetlands provision, the lead rule and a tough requirement reducing the amount of pollution in diesel fuel.

The administration has rejected all or part of four other proposals, including one that would require mining companies to post bonds to pay for pollution cleanup before they begin digging.

Also sidelined were new energy efficiency standards for air conditioners; EPA guidelines that would help citizens learn more about the risks of "worst-case" accidents at chemical plants; and a General Services Administration proposal to take into consideration companies' environmental, health and labor records when awarding federal contracts.

In eight of the most controversial cases, administration officials have further delayed their decisions. For example, rather than move forward with a proposal to regulate runoff from large animal feedlots the same way factory runoff is regulated, Whitman asked for another 2 1/2 months' worth of public comment.

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