`Sound science' stirs environmental controversy

Bush policy glosses over research, critics charge

December 21, 2003|By Julie Deardorff | Julie Deardorff,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Standing before a group of schoolchildren, President Bush repeated an oft-stated promise that his environmental policies would stand on hard scientific research.

"We'll base decisions on sound science," he said in 2001. "We'll call upon the best minds of America to help us achieve an objective, which is: cleaner air, cleaner water and a better use of our land."

But the role of science in forging environmental policy has grown into a central controversy of Bush's presidency. Critics say that although Bush vowed to "rely on the best of evidence before deciding," many of his policies dismiss the scientific recommendations of federal agencies.

From air to wetlands, Bush's policies have sparked a national debate, prompting a closer look at some of the most controversial environmental decisions in decades.

On Tuesday, a federal judge agreed that science was being misapplied in one case. On the eve of the snowmobile season's opening day, the National Park Service was ordered to restore a plan - cast aside by the Bush administration - that will phase out snowmobile use at Yellowstone National Park.

In another development that pleased environmental groups, the administration retreated from a proposal that could have reduced federal protection for millions of acres of wetlands. Facing public opposition to the plan, the White House reaffirmed its commitment to the goal of "no net loss" of wetlands.

White House officials say "sound science" fits with Bush's market-based approach to environmental protection. The administration says it's possible to balance the need for biodiversity, clean air and clean water with economic growth, energy production and reduced regulation.

Nevertheless, the administration misapplied science when deciding policy on more than 20 issues, said a report by the minority party staff of the House Committee on Government Reform. The Democratic report charged that the administration has also manipulated and omitted work done by government scientists.

Other federal reports have determined that regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service, made decisions on clean air and national park issues based in part on industry anecdotes and promises.

And leading scientific journals have questioned both the state of scientific independence and several key Bush appointees who are former lobbyists from the industries they regulate.

In the seesaw battle over snowmobiles in Yellowstone, a judge said last week that the Bush administration's decision to relax the ban set by the Clinton administration was inconsistent with scientific findings.

In peak periods, more than 500 snowmobiles might zip through Yellowstone's west entrance in one hour, motoring along in a single corridor. Park employees, from snowmobile mechanics to west entrance workers, have complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats and eye irritation from the high levels of toxic pollutants from snowmobile emissions.

A 2000 National Park Service report on air-quality concerns related to snowmobiles found that "levels of individual pollutants found in snowmobile exhaust, including carcinogens such as benzene, can be high enough to be a threat to human health."

For wildlife trying to survive harsh winters on stored fat supplies, the roar of a snowmobile is another threat.

"Research has shown that their heart rates increase when a snowmobile passes, indicating they are stressed even if they do not move away," according to a National Park Service's State of the Parks report. "Any energy loss affects the animal's ability to survive in the winter."

Several studies by the EPA have said that banning the machines would eliminate that noise, water and air pollution and is the best way to preserve the park and its inhabitants.

The public overwhelmingly supported a ban on the machines set during the Clinton administration that would have taken effect Wednesday. But the Bush administration reversed the policy and said snowmobiles could stay with some restrictions, including a daily limit on the machines at each gate - which meant fewer snowmobiles during peak periods - and the use of newer and cleaner machines. Snowmobiles were allowed only on groomed roads, about 1 percent of the 2.2 million-acre park.

The National Park Service argued that its plan struck a balance between its dual missions of conservation and public access. But on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan rejected the argument, saying that "conservation can rarely be trumped."

Sullivan also found that the Bush decision contradicted the scientific analysis.

"There is evidence in the record that there isn't an explanation for this change and that the supplemental environmental impact statement was completely politically driven," he wrote in his 48-page brief.

In other instances, including public-land and clean-air issues, critics say the Bush administration has glossed over scientific studies in favor of industry.

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