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Clean-air Imbroglio Are Phil Gramm, George Bush, and the Texas Delegation an Environmental Hazard? BY DAN CARNEY Washington, D.C. IN THE BATTLE over the Bush-backed Clean Air Bill, Lloyd Bentsen has been no ally of environmentalists. He voted against all but one of a series of pro-environmental amendments, a record identical to that of Phil Gramm. He voted “No” to reducing toxic emissions from automobiles; “No” to encouraging alternative fuels. But just minutes before the final floor vote on the bill, Bentsen surprised his staunchest critics. Ten days before that final vote, Bentsen had voted against a measure in the bill that would have limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s right to revoke a factory’s permit to legally pollute, even if the permit was based on faulty information. Despite the Texas Senator’s support, the measure failed amid widespread criticism and pressure from environmental groups. Ten minutes before final passage, the amendment resurfaced. Proponents believed they had rounded up the votes for a 50-50 tie and had Vice President Dan Quayle standing by to hand them a victory. But Bentsen, who had voted for the amendment days before, decided to go the other way. To the surprise of Senate head counters, the measure failed 5149. “I changed my mind,” Bentsen said. “I’ve often joked that sometimes I would like to vote 60 percent for an issue, 40 percent against. In the end I decided cleaner air is worth the cost to some of these large companies, and a relatively small cost at that.” Bentsen’s change of heart demonstrates just how high the stakes have become in the fight for cleaner air, and just how crucial members of the Texas delegation are in that fight. Even in a capital that has elevated influence-peddling to an art form, the House and Senate versions of the Clean Air Bill have been the focus of an unprecedented amount of lobbying and pressure. Both Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine and Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas have placed immense pressure on senators to vote with them on key issues. Senator. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii was wheeled out of the hospital on several occasions to cast his ballot. The bill will likely have a huge impact on industries in Texas, especially in the highly Dan Carney works for States News Service in Washington, D.C. polluted Houston area and the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange. So it is Bentsen and the Texas delegation whom industry and environmental groups consider such crucial players. “He was not on anyone’s list to switch,” said Zoe Schneider, a lobbyist with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and consumer advocacy and watchdog organization. “He was considered a lost cause.” “Generally, he did vote terribly,” Schneider added. “But he did do the right thing at the last minute, probably because of Mitchell.” THE SENATE AND the House are considering different versions of the Clean Air Bill, although both drafts are similar. Both have sections that would limit tailpipe emissions, encourage the use of alternative automobile fuels, and reduce acid rain and urban smog. It is a section on airborne toxic emissions, or harmful chemicals released into the air by industry, that is most applicable to Southeast Texas. And it is this section that environmental groups say does not go far enough. Currently, the EPA regulates and places limitations on the airborne emission of only seven toxic substances.. Depending on what is passed, the number could increase to 187. Companies would have to reduce these emissions by as much 75-90 percent, though both bills are fairly weak on enforcement and the House bill includes a loophole for “accidental emissions.” The cost of reducing emissions could run into billions of dollars, according to industry estimates. A few figures will demonstrate the problem. In Houston’s Harris County alone, 44 million pounds of toxic chemicals defined as substances that are known to be harmful in some way to humans or animals are spewed into the air each year. Nine million of these are known or suspected carcinogens. Lifetime exposure to a Texaco plant in Port Neches raises one’s theoretical chance of getting cancer to greater than one in 10, the EPA estimates. The theoretical chance of developing cancer near plants in Beaumont is greater than one in 100, and 14 other plants across Texas increase that possibility to one in 1,000, according to EPA studies. Two Texans, George Bush and Phil Gramm, are part1T responsible for watering down strict limitations on toxic emission controls. Originally, the Senate drafted aill that would require all businesses to reduce projected cancer rates, if possible, to one in a million, or one in 10,000 if they can show the higher standard is not technologically achievable. But under pressure from industry, a group of 10 senators, including Gramm, meeting with five Bush lieutenants, all but deleted this portion in a marathon session of closeddoor compromising. The agreement weakened a number of other portions of the bill, such as limitations on auto emissions, and was considered by environmentalists to be a major sellout. Leaders of environmental organizations said the Senate had been prepared to pass a much tougher bill. Bentsen wasn’t a member of the negotiating team, but the Texan still played an important role, as evidenced by the effect of his vote switch. On the House side, the toxic, emission section is stronger but still does not include a calculation of cancer risks. The Texas stamp is seen most on the automobile fuels portion, where Congressmen Jack Fields, a Republican from Houston, and Ralph Hall, a Rockwall Democrat, twice teamed up to fend off amendments offered by an unlikely coalition of environmental and natural-gas interests, including Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and a California gas company. The Hall-Fields amendments, which passed at the subcommittee and committee levels instead of tougher measures, are backed by oil and automobile interests hoping to maintain status-quo regulations. If there are heroes in all of this, they are the late Mickey,Leland and a small group of outof-state Democrats who first got toxic emissions into the Clean Air Bill. When the first version of the Clean Air Bill was taken up in the 1980s unsuccessfully in part due to the opposition of Ronald Reagan it was considered, a smog and acid rain bill. But Leland introduced a bill to regulate toxic emissions. Some of its provisions have made their way into the House bill. The House is expected to begin floor debate on its version of the bill this month and a number of amendments are anticipated. What the House finally passes remains uncertain. And the final version of the bill will likely depend on the results of a House-Senate conference committee. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7 V[,,,,