Even though the environment was not an issue in the recent election, top officials in the Bush administration are claiming a broad mandate to reshape environmental policy. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt says environmental protection must be accomplished in ways that maintain the country's economic competitiveness. Environmental groups fear the worst. They say they're bracing for an even tougher onslaught against established protections for water, air and land than they faced in the last four years. But most environmentalists acknowledge that environmental protection is not a purely partisan issue. They say they'll be looking for ways to work together with both Democrats and Republicans in the new administration. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council calls environmental policies from the last Bush administration some of the worst he's ever seen.
Jack Shaner: They sure weren't pretty. We've suffered one assault and attempted rollback after another.
The OEC has been around for 30 years. Its members include more than 50 environmental and conservation groups from around the state. Shaner says while congressional battles over drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge captured media attention, it was new EPA rulemaking on issues like clean air protections that have had a greater impact, especially in Great Lakes states.
Jack Shaner: For example, the so-called Clear Skies initiative... when the Bush administration couldn't get its way in Congress, it just proceeded nonetheless, proposing a very weak mercury ruling, much weaker than what the Clean Air Act requires.
Government warnings to limit consumption of fish due to high mercury levels have been a focal point for many Ohio environmental groups. The new mercury rules are due to be finalized next March. In the meantime EPA Press Secretary Cynthia Bergman says new rules on other pollutants are planned for the end of this year.
Cynthia Bergman: What we want to finalize are designations for PM 2.5. It's a new pollutant and we need to designate counties across the U.S. who are not meeting this new, more protective air quality standard.
Stu Greenberg: We'll be in non-compliance. What that means is the particulate matter will be at a level that will be unhealthy.
Stu Greenberg, who heads Environmental HealthWatch in Cleveland, believes some of the EPA's rulings will be an improvement, like those governing the small particle pollutants, or PMs, in diesel exhaust. Others, like the upcoming clean air interstate rule designed to reduce power plant emissions that drift across state lines, he says still hide loopholes that will allow polluters to continue polluting or else rely too heavily on voluntary compliance and marketplace solutions, like cap and trade. But Greenberg's biggest concern is how Congress will handle the federal debt.
Stu Greenberg: I think that what we can anticipate in the coming year is that because of the huge budget deficit that that will be used as a rationale for severe cuts in EPA funding which means very much reduced enforcement.
Andy Buschsbaum of the National Wildlife Federation believes environmental enforcement will continue to be a lightening rod for critics. But Buchsbaum, who heads the conservation group's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says Congress could have a positive impact, particularly in states like Ohio.
Andy Buchsbaum: The Bush administration for the first time fully funded the Great Lakes Legacy Act, for example, which is a toxic clean-up law that was passed several years ago that has never been funded. The Bush administration has issued a good executive order on Great Lakes restoration. We'll have to see whether that executive order results in the kind of restoration we'd like to see, but it's a good start.
Buchsbaum says Great Lakes lawmakers on both sides of the aisle - including Ohio's two GOP senators Mike DeWine and George Voinovich - are working hard to gain support for issues like the Aquatic Invasive Species Act. That's a bill designed to protect Great Lakes fisheries that will likely see action next year. He says one way to working successfully with the new Bush administration and Republican-dominated Congress may be to choose the right partners. During the last year he says some rulings considered negative were actually reversed.
Andy Buchsbaum: One was the wetlands rulemaking, where the admin proposed a rule that would have taken Clean Water Act protections away protection from isolated wetlands in the Great Lakes and throughout the country. The administration to its credit when it heard from the sportsmen's community, it withdrew those recommendations.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council speaks for many when he says it's time for environmental groups to rethink their strategies.
Jack Shaner: To be candid, our community spent a lot of time and trouble trying to attack the Bush administration. And the administration certainly deserved to be attacked. But that didn't always get the public's attention.
Shaner notes that environmental protection has traditionally been a bi-partisan issue.
Jack Shaner: We need to make the environment more of a third rail. We've got to get it, we've got to figure that out. I think if we can be effective in doing that, we can carry the day.
Environmental groups may get their first chance to carry the day yet this year if Senator Voinovich carries through on his promise to reintroduce Clear Skies, a previously-stalled bill designed to control some air emissions NOT including greenhouse gases. And environmentalists will certainly test their mettle on negotiations over the energy bill expected to be taken up again next year. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.