Dems Point Finger On Environment

President Bush, logging in national forests. AP / CBS

More than a year and a half after the handover from President Clinton to President Bush, Democrats and Republicans are still slinging allegations back and forth over who did what - the wrong way.

But make no mistake - with Congressional elections less than two weeks away - the mudslinging isn't really about the past.

The environment has been a continuing battleground in the war of words between the Democrats and the GOP, with the latest allegations coming from the Democratic staff of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

In a report based on a 20-month-long review of documents, the Democrats claim that the White House - hostile to Clinton era environmental regulations - largely shut out the public from commenting on the Bush administration's reworking of forestry and mining rules that had been years in the making.

The report, released Thursday, also concludes that President Bush's review of a Clinton-era standard to mandate lower arsenic levels in drinking water was a waste of time.

The authors of the report portray the Bush administration as routinely dismissive of long-established regulatory procedures, public input and the scientific record behind the rules.

"It was wrong for the administration to second guess these final rules," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee's chairman and the Democratic vice presidential nominee two years ago. "It was wrong to discount a well-established scientific record. And it was wrong for the administration to use stealth tactics to achieve its ideologically driven ends."

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the administration's regulatory policies, dismissed the committee staff's findings as political.

"It's disappointing, but it's not surprising it's happening a few days before the election," Duffy said. "We've opened up the regulatory process to the public like never before."

He said the administration's regulatory approach "is based on a fundamental principle that smart regulation, based on scientific evidence and proper peer review, is the best way to save more lives, make our air and water cleaner and improve health, while keeping our economy growing."

The Democratic staff report said OMB, acting on White House staff chief Andrew Card's January 2001 memo ordering a review of Clinton-era regulations, suggested to agencies they not seek public comment, treating "as an annoyance and an obstacle" an important legal requirement.

The Bush administration has declined to appeal a decision by an Idaho federal judge to block President Clinton's ban on most road-building and logging in roadless areas of national forests. The administration, however, defended the ban in North Dakota's national grasslands, saying its approach is site-specific.

The Senate panel staff cited one document, obtained from the files of the then-acting undersecretary of the Agriculture Department who oversaw the Forest Service. In it, a handwritten notation said the administration's strategy was to "let (the) judge take (the) rule down."

A Forest Service spokesman had no immediate comment.

The Democratic report said the "OMB staff ... pressed the EPA to dilute the arsenic standard" and "to reject its own expert judgment regarding the science and the application of the law."

However, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced last year after a review that the Bush administration agreed with the Clinton arsenic standard and said water systems would have to meet it within five years.

The administration's reversal occurred after the National Academy of Sciences issued a report saying EPA had greatly underestimated the cancer risks of arsenic in drinking water.

Also last year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton revised environmental restrictions on hard-rock minerals Clinton had imposed just before he left office.

She eliminated the government's authority to tell miners they can't dig on public land where they've staked claims, but affirmed a Clinton administration requirement that mining companies post bonds to cover 100 percent of their cleanup costs in case they go bankrupt.

  • John Esterbrook

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