Earth Day Wonders


Wonder of wonders, something possibly quite good for the environment has come out of the Bush administration! Maybe it was the hypnotic power of Earth Day in a presidential election year, but credit must be given where it is due. Last week, the Commission on Ocean Policy issued its preliminary findings. Its members, mostly Republicans, were appointed by President Bush, and they produced a surprisingly strong report. It supports the scientific consensus that the oceans, and U.S coastal waters in particular, are in a state of crisis caused by pollution from cities, industries and offshore oil drilling and by overfishing, all of which have seriously damaged ocean fisheries and marine life in general.

The report cites the problem of increasing development near the nation’s shores. It also recognizes that pollution pouring into the oceans originates in streams and rivers far inland, and it urges controls on that flow. And the commission calls for a shift in emphasis from the protection of individual species to the restoration and preservation of ecosystems -- a focus that many scientists have long urged.

The commission urges that policies be based on "sound" science and argues that the strengthening of science should include more money for ocean research, where the United States seems to be lagging behind. The commissioners say we should at least double the $650 million we currently spend – a paltry sum compared with the ocean-research budget of many smaller nations.

The report complains of a confusing and ineffective array of agencies -- federal, state and local -- responsible for aspects of ocean management, and it calls for the creation of a new cabinet-level National Ocean Council in the White House.

However, the report does not call for stringent controls, such as zoning critical areas and regulating some forms of fishing. Many of Bush’s environmental initiatives have been similarly flawed whenever regulation might clash with the interests of affected industries. It remains to be seen how the White House will react to the ocean report. And, of course, Congress must pass on the commission’s recommendations – another hurdle.

Additionally, the commission recommends Senate ratification of the U.N.-sponsored Law of the Sea treaty, under which (among other things) all states have basic obligations to protect the marine environment from all sources of pollution. For 22 years the United States has declined to sign the treaty. It has abided by its provisions but has been negotiating changes to one section regarding deep-sea mining and national-security issues. To its credit, the Bush administration has pronounced itself satisfied, and is recommending Senate ratification.

But that, folks, is as good as it gets. Among his Earth Day remarks, the president also took credit for "some of the most important anti-pollution policies in a decade." Since 2001, he said, "the condition of America’s land, air and water has improved."

Beg your pardon, but this is an administration that has vigorously sought to relax the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of Clean Air Act provisions, including those concerning the reduction of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. One result of this relaxation has been the resignation of a number of environmental officials in the EPA’s enforcement office and elsewhere.

Little more than a week ago, the EPA issued a report showing that 474 counties, containing 150 million people, fail to meet clean-air standards. The agency has instructed officials in 31 states that they will have to develop new pollution controls. That hardly sounds like a great improvement in air quality, but it does show the EPA is on the job, doesn’t it?

Well, actually no, it doesn’t. The EPA actions were in response to a court order. The standards applied are in the Clean Air Act, which was passed during the Clinton administration, but they were tangled up in court challenges by affected industries and three major pollution-producing states: Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia. The Supreme Court upheld those standards in early 2001, but the incoming Bush administration dragged its feet, failing to enforce them. However, environmental groups sued to force EPA compliance and won. As has happened in other cases, this administration had to be ordered to obey the law.


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© 2004 Walter Cronkite

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