Environmental Botox

Despite a snowstorm that paralyzed traffic in Washington, D.C., on January 26, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt forged ahead with a planned indoor photo-op. Boasting of "collaboration" with assembled oil and automobile company representatives, Leavitt "unveiled" the super-clean Toyota Prius and other "green" vehicles that actually had been in showrooms since last fall.

Before the week was out, Leavitt also had churned out press releases touting new funds for cleanup of the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay and for dirty diesel school buses. And, following Leavitt's recommendation, the Justice Department had filed the Bush administration's first clean-air lawsuit against an electric power company.

Has President Bush suddenly become an election-year convert to environmentalism -- a development my boss likened to Jeffrey Dahmer's becoming a vegetarian?

Or does it have something to do with the emergence of John Kerry as the Democratic presidential front-runner? Kerry, an environmental champion who has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, cites the Bush anti-environmental record in virtually every speech he makes. A couple of things seem clear. For starters, Leavitt has obviously been brought in to inject the Bush team with some environmental botox -- a few cosmetic changes aimed at smoothing out the administration's radically anti-environmental appearance between now and Election Day.

Second, Leavitt is a master at "working" the media, arguably more adept at this than anyone who's ever run the environmental agency. A charismatic speaker who has been well-trained in the school of "risk communications," Leavitt recognizes the importance of filling a news void by parceling out a steady stream of happy-news tidbits punctuated with upbeat rhetoric about "collaboration," "incentives" and "progress."

Under closer analysis, however, this happy talk appears as disingenuous as Justin Timberlake's description of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction."

A Coup For EPA's PR

Take, for example, the "green" car photo-op. Leavitt conveniently omitted the fact that lower-polluting vehicles and fuels are on the market today because of actions taken by President Clinton to set tougher clean-air requirements. And it was the Clinton EPA that stood its ground against a furious assault by most of the nation's biggest oil companies.

Or consider the proposed school-bus cleanup. Because school kids are breathing high levels of toxic diesel exhaust, it's a no-brainer to call for more money to clean up dirty old buses -- indeed, one wonders why it took an election year to prompt this proposal, which entails only a tiny fraction of the money actually needed to rectify this problem.

But the upbeat press release deflected attention away from the fact that overall, EPA has undergone one of the most severe budget cuts in the entire government, a cutback that Senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) said "not only shortchanges the environment, it challenges our nation's role as a global environmental leader."

Perhaps nowhere has the Leavitt approach been more evident than in EPA's dealings with smoke-belching electric power plants.

Clean Air Victory Or Smokescreen?

For three years, the Bush administration has taken its cue -- literally -- from some of the nation's biggest polluting power companies. (The Washington Post reported that portion's of EPA's recent proposal for toxic mercury emissions from power plants were lifted verbatim from industry suggestions -- a development that an industry lawyer all-too-candidly described as "gratifying.")

Leavitt has tried to "spin" reporters on this subject by spewing a steady mantra of misinformation. For example, the industry-supported Leavitt plan for mercury would permit power companies to buy and sell the right to poison the air and water rather than promptly clean up this toxin, as the Clinton EPA had intended.

Leavitt repeatedly has claimed that his plan would reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018. In reality, that 70 percent figure is about as elusive as those weapons of mass destruction. Few reporters have read the fine print of the EPA analyses, which reveal that, because of various loopholes, the actual reduction would be more like 50 percent by 2026 -- meaning that the Leavitt plan could subject an entire generation of children to the risk of mercury poisoning.

Similarly, Leavitt has implied that the Bush administration is undertaking a major enforcement crackdown against power companies that violated "new source review" rules designed to prevent older smokestack factories from increasing emissions without modernizing pollution controls. The reality is that the industry-crafted Bush plan, which would let most power companies off the hook, was blocked by a federal appeals court.

While urging the courts to reverse ground and let the industry-supported rules take effect, Leavitt has declared he will enforce the tougher older version of the rules. So far, however, the only Bush lawsuit -- against a relatively obscure public power company in Kentucky -- involves a case so egregious that it would apparently violate even the weaker, pro-industry rules that have been put on ice.

Because Botox is only a temporary fix, be prepared for more injections as we draw closer to Election Day.

Frank O'Donnell is the executive director of the Clean Air Trust, a national non-profit watchdog group founded by former Senators Edmund Muskie of Maine and Robert Stafford of Vermont.

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