When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, many political observers had a theory that whenever he started holding photo ops with adorable little children, it was time to grab your wallet because it meant some unconscionable giveaway to the corporations was in the wind.
I did not fully subscribe to the theory, but having noticed a number of adorable-child ops in the past few weeks, I decided to check for what might be flying under the radar, with the following results:
— The Bush administration has reversed Clinton-era regulations for mining on public lands, including a measure that gave federal officials power to block mining operations that could cause “substantial and irreparable harm.” The Environmental Protection Agency says about 40 percent of Western watersheds have been polluted by mining. From California to Alaska, bankrupt and abandoned gold mines leak acid and heavy metals into streams. There are 500,000 abandoned mines around the country with cleanup costs estimated in the tens of billions.
More than a third of the Western United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, is owned by the public, which receives no royalties from mining companies that exploit it. Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources, told the Northwest Mining Association the administration wants to reinvigorate mineral exploration in national forests, according to The New York Times. The 1872 Mining Law, meant to help small-time pick-and-shovel miners back in the day, is now the protector of giant corporations mining for gold, silver, copper and uranium. The gold mines use cyanide to leach out their product, which makes an unholy mess. The Mineral Policy Center had already sued the administration, challenging the revisions.
— Charles Peters of Washington Monthly notes that the Bushies did decide to keep the Clinton standards on arsenic in drinking water, giving us a policy of arsenic-no, but cyanide-yes.
— The administration has proceeded with plans to allow more road-building in national forests, a notorious subsidy for the timber industry.
— It has decided to push back the planned phase-out of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The original plan was to shift over to the less-polluting snow coaches, which also have far less impact on wildlife, over three years.
— In another move, the administration has relaxed the rules on developing wetlands: malls in the marshes; just what we need.
— The EPA has pulled information about chemical plants and pipeline safety off the Web, apparently on the theory that terrorists might use the information. “There are numerous information purges occurring,” Paul Orum of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know told the Charleston Gazette.
It’s hard to see what terrorists could do with information on the pollution of drinking water by chemical companies, but it’s sure easy to see why the chemical companies would like to keep it quiet. As Robert Rackleff, chairman of the National Pipeline Reform Coalition points out, the lack of information allows companies to “conceal existing safety problems from any independent scrutiny.”
— The EPA has diverted about 40 percent of its criminal enforcement division to anti-terrorist activities, also moving hazardous waste inspectors to the World Trade Center site. This may well be advisable as we all struggle to get a grip on “homeland security,” but it also be smart to remember that more people were killed by the 1984 chemical plant accident in Bhopal (3,000 died immediately and 200,000 were injured— more have died every day since, so the tally is not final. It’s generally put at 5,000) than died on Sept. 11 (3,273, according to The New York Times).
— And, of course, the prize environmental move of all is the administration’s insistence that it is necessary to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because of Sept. 11. The Philadelphia Inquirer refers to this as the “It’s patriotic to pollute” theme. Of course, drilling in ANWAR will do nothing for our dependence on foreign oil. Even the most optimistic estimates of ANWAR’s output won’t make a dent in the 50 percent of the oil we use that comes from abroad.
I suspect that when the history of this era is written, the lack of vision on the part of our government will be deemed the greatest tragedy of all. This was the opportunity, this was the great shining moment when we could have reversed energy policy—as Bush so stunningly reversed his foreign policy—and moved toward energy independence based on conservation and the development of renewable resources.
The President had only to ask: Americans are so eager to help. Instead of asking us to begin to conserve and convert, he asked us to go shopping instead. So we will remain dependent on some of the most backward and unstable regimes in the world.
Our entire transportation system is based on oil, and we know it is poisoning the planet, but still we do nothing. Well, Bush always did have trouble with the vision thing. Watch out for those adorable kid photo ops. n
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.