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U.S. Lawmakers Urged to Oppose White House Rollbacks

Michigan groups resist changes in environmental laws

June 25, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
  State environmental leaders assert that proposed changes in federal law, if enacted, will make air and water dirtier, raise public health risks, and weaken safeguards for wetlands and other natural resources in Michigan.

A group of Michigan environmental organizations this week called on the state’s Congressional delegates to block an array of contested proposals now under consideration in Washington that would, they argue, have the effect of reversing decades of progress to protect Michigan’s air, water, land, and the health of citizens.
In a letter to Michigan’s 15 congressmen and two senators, the environmental organizations focused on four of the hundreds of changes that President George W. Bush and his economic and national security advisors have proposed since January 2001 to reduce, and in some cases eliminate, air, water, and toxic pollution limits for select industries and the military.

The Bush administration claims that such changes reflect advancements in scientific understanding of the risks of exposure to man made pollutants, as well as a need to tie environmental protection to other social goals, such as economic growth and  homeland security.

A Balanced Approach?
“Our approach is to maximize the quality of life for America,” James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told the New York Times earlier this year. “That means balancing the environmental equation with the natural resource equation, the social equation, and the economic equation.”

But Michigan environmental leaders say that the balance the White House seeks has tilted too far, reflecting Mr. Bush’s allegiance to free market ideas about less regulation in stimulating the economy, as well as the influence of industries and political interests that are important to his re-election campaign next year. State environmental leaders asserted that the proposed changes, if enacted, will make air and water dirtier, raise public health risks, and weaken safeguards for wetlands and other natural resources that are the foundation of Michigan’s economy and quality of life.
“Strong federal environmental laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s were needed and designed to stop the competition among states to cut corners on public protections in order to benefit special interests,” said state leaders in the letter to the Michigan delegation, which was signed by 14 organizations. “We urge you to resist the Bush administration’s attempts to undo more than a generation of protection for the environment of the state and of the nation.”

The letter was faxed to lawmakers on Tuesday. It is part of a campaign in Michigan and nationally, say environmental leaders, to hold lawmakers accountable and raise public awareness about the President’s effort to significantly change how the nation oversees natural resources and public health.

"There is nothing radical or extreme in the actions we request ," said David Dempsey, a policy advisor at the Michigan Environmental Council, which signed the letter. "It's simply common-sense conservation that will allow Michigan citizens to enjoy clean beaches, healthy air, and exotics-free Great Lakes."

Specific Help Wanted 
Michigan organizations asked the Congressional delegation for help in preventing these specific Bush administration proposals:

  • Allowing military installations to disregard laws to ensure clean air and water, safeguard endangered species, and ensure proper disposal and cleanup of toxic wastes. The groups noted that such exemptions will make it much more difficult to compel the military to clean up a legacy of toxic waste at Camp Grayling, in northern Michigan, where ground water appears to have been contaminated with perchlorate, a toxic explosive used in rocket fuel and munitions.
  • Weakening the Clean Air Act by allowing 500 power plants and other industrial facilities in Michigan to actually increase the amount of soot and smog-forming pollution they can release into the air.
  • Eliminating Clean Water Act protections for small streams and wetlands across Michigan, a proposal that would allow more contaminants to pour into Michigan’s water and more development on thousands of acres of state wetlands.
  • Shifting the responsibility for paying for Superfund toxic waste cleanups from the companies that are responsible for the mess, to taxpayers. The effect of the change would dramatically slow the pace of the cleanup at 67 Superfund sites in Michigan.

Michigan environmental organizations also urged the Congressional delegation to review the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision in December to allow utilities to license their nuclear plants without having to consider their vulnerability to terrorists. And the groups urged federal lawmakers to expand a Michigan law approved in 2001 and require all ships entering the Great Lakes to treat their ballast water tanks in order to eliminate exotic species.

Along Party Lines 
“There is a diverse group of people, voices, and organizations that all express concern about what’s happening at the national level with environmental policy,” said Kim Winchell, director of Michigan Interfaith Coalition for Creation, a statewide network of religious activists concerned about the environment, which signed the letter. “We are calling on Michigan’s Congressional delegation to do what they can to reverse that tide. Speaking from the faith perspective, it’s a matter of justice and ethics that how we care for the earth is linked to how we care for people.”

To some extent, Michigan’s federal lawmakers, particularly the Democrats, have expressed opposition to the president’s environmental agenda. Senator Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is negotiating with Republicans and the White House to prevent exemptions from environmental laws that the Pentagon seeks. Senator Debbie Stabenow opposes the president’s effort to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Michigan’s Republican lawmakers have not been active either in promoting the White House environmental proposals or opposing them. When asked about Mr. Bush’s environmental proposals in May during a meeting of Grand Rapids-region business executives and civic leaders, Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra said he was unaware of all the proposals and could not comment on their potential to affect Michigan’s environment or resource-based economy. “I want to learn more about that,” said Mr. Hoekstra, who in 2001 was the first prominent Republican leader in Michigan to oppose a state proposal to drill for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. 

State Officials Also Concerned
The White House environmental proposals, however, are attracting the attention of Demcratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and her administration. In April, Steve Chester, the director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, expressed his opposition to the Bush administration’s plan to remove wetlands from federal protection, which would make more than 271,000 acres of wetlands in the state — an area about the size of a typical county — available for new development. In addition, said Mr. Chester, 26,384 inland lakes and ponds would be unprotected, increasing the potential for more water pollution and erosion.
“Michigan is literally shaped by its water resources,” said Mr. Chester in the letter. “Our economy is heavily dependent upon the vitality of the Great Lakes and their tributaries.”

In May, Gov. Granholm personally weighed in with a letter that asked members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to reject the president’s plan to exempt the military from the nation’s core environmental statutes. Noting that such a change would shift more responsibility to the states and that the Pentagon already has the authority to waive environmental restrictions in an emergency, Gov. Granholm asserted that the proposal had no justification.

“America’s landmark public health and environmental laws express our nation’s commitment to preserve and protect our health and our natural heritage,” Gov. Granholm said. She added that the Defense Department’s “proposed exemptions would undermine the principles of equity and fairness while risking an unraveling of several decades’ worth of environmental protection for our land, water, and wildlife resources.”

Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy in Washington for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, noted in an interview that Michigan is among the most active states in responding to the Bush administration’s environmental program. “State activists and elected officials in Michigan recognize the fundamental threat we’re facing from the environmental retreat,” said Mr. Wetstone, who visited Michigan in April to talk with organizations, the media, and members of the Granholm administration on the White House environmental agenda.

9/11 No Longer A Distraction 
Since taking office in January 2001, the Bush administration has proposed sharp alterations, and in many cases elimination of key provisions in every one of the major federal environmental statutes enacted during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. Those laws, critics and supporters agree, resulted in cleaner air and water, larger expanses of forest and wild lands, reduced threats from toxic chemicals, and an economy at least seven times larger than it was a generation ago.

Before September 11, 2001, Mr. Bush’s program for revising federal environmental law foundered under the weight of public resistance to the changes. The president’s program, which included a proposal to open a national wildlife refuge in Alaska to new oil exploration, abandoning an international treaty to stem global climate change, and walking away from new rules to limit arsenic in drinking water, contributed to his tepid public approval rating.

In the months since Sept. 11, as the president’s standing improved and the attention of citizens, the media, and lawmakers turned to national security issues, the Bush administration quietly stepped up its work to limit the reach of environmental statutes. The changes in law, the most significant ever sought by a modern administration and too numerous to recount in this article, received little attention outside of specialty publications and some national newspapers during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In recent weeks, though, the president’s environmental record has received more scrutiny as advocates and political leaders draw public attention to the potential consequences. June 27, moreover, is Christie Todd Whitman’s last day as administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Her replacement has not been announced and environmental advocates and their allies in the Senate are poised to aggressively address the president’s stewardship during the confirmation hearings.

Pollsters in both parties assert that the Bush administration’s stewardship of air and water could be a significant issue in the 2004 presidential campaign, especially in Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and columnist, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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