Earth Day activists say Bush is eroding environmental laws

EPA says revisions aimed at clarifying regulations

April 23, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Environmental activists gathered on Federal Hill yesterday to celebrate Earth Day by accusing the Bush administration of weakening some of the most important environmental legislation enacted in the past 30 years.

"The Bush administration should be listening to the public and not to the polluters," said Gigi Kellett, a spokeswoman for Maryland Public Interest Research Group, at a Baltimore news conference coordinated with similar gatherings around the country.

Kellett and other environmental leaders said federal agencies under President Bush have quietly crafted regulations that effectively roll back key provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and federal Superfund legislation, which was enacted to clean up toxic waste sites.

PIRG's Washington office and the Sierra Club released a report that accuses Bush of crippling efforts to clean up the nation's air and waterways.

The 95-page report, titled Behind Closed Doors, says Bush's policies are the result of private lobbying in Washington by power companies, chemical firms and other "big polluters."

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, charged with implementing Bush's environmental policies, said yesterday that the agency remains committed to enforcing environmental mandates.

"They have their viewpoint, but it's all a matter of perspective," said Prudence Goforth, an EPA spokeswoman. "EPA is very committed to cleaning up our air, water and land."

Kellett and other activists said the report shows that the impact of Bush's environmental policies will be "felt everywhere," including Maryland.

The Clean Water Act requires a federal review of any improvements or construction projects that affect wetlands. But proposed Bush administration changes will eliminate that requirement for projects that affect 121,000 acres of Maryland lakes and 1,138 miles of streams, according to the PIRG report.

Environmental experts say that will deplete sources for drinking water and destroy wetland habitats crucial for a variety of animals and plants.

"This water should be fishable and swimmable, but the Bush administration is going in the opposite direction," Andrew Fellows, a program director for Clean Water Action, told reporters, gesturing to the Inner Harbor.

Changes to the Clean Air Act's new source review provisions mean that 167 power plants, refineries and other industries in Maryland may be allowed to increase levels of smog, soot and other pollutants without making improvements to reduce emissions that would have otherwise been required, Kellett said.

Several states, including Maryland, have filed a federal suit to block Bush's changes to the Clean Air Act.

The EPA's Goforth said the revisions have only been proposed and federal officials are reviewing comments from public hearings.

She said the changes are intended to avoid lawsuits from polluters and clarify the difference between a major overhaul of a chemical or power plant -- which would require installation of expensive emission controls -- and routine maintenance, which would not require improvements.

"We are aggressively enforcing the new source review regulations on the books and looking for ways to clarify existing regulations," she said.

The environmentalists' report said Bush has also failed to budget sufficient money to clean up Maryland's 18 Superfund sites.

In addition, it criticized Bush for failing to require more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Vehicle fuel economy is at a 21-year low because of the popularity of sport utility vehicles and light trucks, the report said.

But Goforth said the EPA has greatly reduced emissions from cars and trucks.

"We've cleaned up the engines of cars, buses and trucks on the road and we're cleaning up the fuels that go in them," she said.

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