Forum examines U.S. environmental policy |

Forum examines U.S. environmental policy

Jane Stebbins

KEYSTONE – The Bush administration has made subtle changes to environmental laws that have essentially ripped the heart out of them, but it’s nothing that can’t be overturned in the future.

That was the message the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Greg Wetstone delivered to a standing-room-only crowd at the Current Affairs Forum held at the Keystone Center Thursday night.

The forum is a monthly series of discussions hosted by the Keystone Center and Colorado Mountain College and is designed to initiate conversations about community, national and international issues facing Summit County.

Unlike many other countries, the United States’ environmental protection laws have worked because of the infrastructure behind the programs. That infrastructure calls for monitoring, enforcement, funding and public oversight.

“Nobody got run over with environmentalists saying “You have to do this,'” Wetstone said. “Industry was pressured, then they’d say, “This doesn’t work,’ and they forged a strong environmental document. In today’s Congress, that seems almost quaint.”

After the forum, some people complained about the absence of someone to defend the Bush administration. The sole industry representative, Beth Lowery of General Motors, said she purposely avoided that discussion and chose to address questions pertaining to her company and the auto industry.

She did note, however, that she couldn’t argue with any of the points Wetstone made during his presentation.

Bud Ris, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that there have been numerous successes in the fight to protect the environment – most of which are the result of industry and environmentalists working together.

“With this administration, they say they want an open debate, and the next thing you know, they’ve thrown out the old language without offering anything new,” Ris said. “It’s very subtle the way this is happening.”

Ris said he’s concerned about what he sees as the administration’s manipulation of science itself.

He cited a report about the state of the environment commissioned under former EPA Secretary Christy Todd Whitman, in which there was a chapter about climate change.

“It said, there is climate change, the Earth is getting warmer and human beings are the major cause of it,” Ris said. “The White House tried to change it, and when the EPA said they couldn’t release (the report) with those changes, the administration left the entire chapter out.”

Wetstone outlined some of the more than 100 changes the Bush administration has made in the past three years to weaken the infrastructure that keeps environmental protection laws strong.

For example, he said, the administration has redefined part of the Clean Water Act that defines mountain top mining waste to say it is no longer a pollutant.

“The law (Clean Water Act) is still on the books,” he said. “The law is still unchanged. But it’s how they’re interpreting the law.”

This summer, the administration changed the parameters surrounding factory upgrades, allowing owners to make huge overhauls without having to install upgraded pollution control systems.

In the name of “healthy forests,” the administration is working to tweak language that will allow logging in the last remaining sequoia forest in the world, Wetstone said. The administration is shrinking the list of which bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act by eliminating “isolated waterways” – those waterways that don’t directly flow to the ocean. In Colorado, he noted, that will leave 70 percent of stream miles unprotected.

Changes have also been made to the Army Corps of Engineers “no net loss” of wetlands definition, rules about raw sewage from “factory farms,” snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park and “thumper trucks” searching for natural gas near Arches National Park in Utah.

These changes, Wetstone said, have been made without public input – and despite a New York Times poll that indicates 80 percent of the public wants tougher standards on industry and greenhouse gases. Only 7 percent of those polled said they want less stringent standards.

“I think momentum has shifted,” Wetstone said. “The public has turned its attention to domestic issues. It’s no longer distracted by the war in Iraq. It’s time to get started on this very real problem.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or

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