Environmental Reality Check

The response of President George W. Bush to a debate question about his environmental record was met with disbelief by his challenger, the Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts at the second of three presidential debates Friday night in St. Louis.

In keeping with the town-hall meeting format for the debate, the environmental question was put by audience member James Hubb, who asked, "Mr. President, how would you rate yourself as an environmentalist? What specifically has your administration done to improve the condition of our nation's air and water supply?"

The president said his administration has proposals on the table to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines, increase the wetlands, fix inner city brownfields, and "a Clear Skies Initiative to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70 percent."

"Over time is technology is going to change the way we live for the good for the environment," said the president. "That's why I proposed a hydrogen automobile – hydrogen-generated automobile. We're spending $1 billion to come up with the technologies to do that."

"That's why I'm a big proponent of clean coal technology, to make sure we can use coal but in a clean way," he said. "I guess you'd say I'm a good steward of the land."

"The quality of the air's cleaner since I've been the president. Fewer water complaints since I've been the President. More land being restored since I've been the president," Bush said.

"Boy, to listen to that," exclaimed Kerry. "The president, I don't think, is living in a world of reality with respect to the environment.

"When it comes to the issue of the environment, this is one of the worst administrations in modern history," Kerry charged. "The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about, it's one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky, slap it onto something, like 'No Child Left Behind' but you leave millions of children behind. Here they're leaving the skies and the environment behind."

"If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner that it is if you pass the Clear Skies act. We're going backwards," Kerry said. "They're going backwards on the definition for wetlands. They're going backwards on the water quality."

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for President, called the Bush administration the worst ever for the environment. "They pulled out of the global warming [agreement], declared it dead, didn't even accept the science," Kerry challenged. "I'm going to be a president who believes in science."

The leaders of Environment2004, a Democratic environmental advocacy organization, which could be expected to back Kerry's position, does so because, they say, the president's assertions contained "numerous inaccuracies" and amounted to a "gross misrepresentation of the president's real record."

The group released a detailed comparison of Bush's representation of his record during the debate compared with what has actually taken place. Environment2004 counted more than 350 actions of past administrations to protect the environment that have been rolled back by the Bush administration, and they accuse the president of "abandoning the Republican party's conservationist roots dating back to Teddy Roosevelt."

President Bush said, "Off-road diesel engines – we have reached an agreement to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines by 90 percent."

Environment2004 points out that the decision the president was referring to was originally proposed under the Clinton administration.

Then the president said, "I've got a plan to increase the wetlands by three million [acres]."

Environment2004 reminds voters that in October 2001, President Bush's administration reversed the policy his father, President George H.W. Bush called "no net loss" of wetlands. This means that for every acre of wetlands destroyed by development, at least one more acre would be created.

Yet in 2003, the Bush administration announced its intent to eliminate Clean Water Act protections for isolated waters that are not connected to a navigable waterway, "threatening the ecological health of 20 million acres of wetlands, and rivers and steams nationwide that would lose protection of their headwaters," Environment2004 says.

Following a meeting with hunters and anglers groups, Bush announced that he would reinstate the no net loss of wetlands policy, yet he has not withdrawn the new rule to eliminate wetlands protections. His administration has weakened the environmental standards for general permits to fill wetlands and streams, Environment2004 says.

On the Clear Skies Initiative, Environment2004 says the proposal "would allow five times as much mercury into the environment from dirty coal-burning power plants as the current Clean Air Act would allow for at least 10 years longer, through the year 2018 – 26 tons a year versus five tons – and three times as much mercury after that – 15 tons a year versus five tons."

Even Republicans agree with Environment2004's assessment of George w. Bush's environmental record as President. In an op-ed piece in the New Hampshire newspaper, the Concord Monitor, published on Sept. 23, 2004, two prominent Republicans criticized the President's "sorry environmental record."

Russell Train was the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Rick Russman is on the board of the National Environmental Trust and chairs the Granite State Conservation Voters Alliance. He was a New Hampshire state senator for 10 years and served as chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee. Both are long-time members of REP America, the grassroots Republican organization for environmental protection.

"Except in a few instances," they write, "the environmental policies of the Bush administration are a disgrace."

"The administration's policies to promote energy, mining and timber interests with little regard for the interests of common citizens represent a throwback to an era of exploitation," write Train and Russman. "The administration's assault on the environment has increased pollution and health threats in New Hampshire, according to a report by Environment2004."

"The administration weakened the Clean Air Act to allow aging power plants to continue spewing sulfur, mercury and other contaminants into the skies," write Train and Russman. "These end up in New Hampshire's air and waters. This pollution from Midwestern power plants and other sources forms smog that threatens the 65,000 New Hampshire residents who suffer from asthma. It falls as acid rain that damages New Hampshire's forests and waters."

"Mercury pollution has forced New Hampshire to establish a fish consumption advisory that covers all its lakes and rivers. Infants, children, pregnant women and women of child-bearing age are particularly vulnerable to mercury. Mercury affects a child's ability to learn, most notably impairing memory, attention and fine motor function," Train and Russman write.

On Friday night during the debate, President Bush responded to the environmental question by saying, "We proposed and passed a Healthy Forest Bill, which was essential to working with, particularly in Western states, to make sure that our forests were protected."

"What happens in those forests because of lousy federal policy, is they grow to be, they, they are, they're not harvested," he stammered. "They're not taken care of. And as a result, they're like tinderboxes. And over the last summers, I've flown over there. And so this is a reasonable policy to protect old stands of trees and at the same time make sure our forests aren't vulnerable to the forest fires that have destroyed acres after acres in the West."

But in reality, Environment2004 says, "The Bush administration has launched a three-pronged attack on our National Forests for the benefit of timber companies that engage in unsustainable logging practices which cannot support long term jobs."

  • It has dismantled the Roadless Rule, which was to protect 58.5 million acres of America's last remaining wild, but unprotected National Forests from logging and road building.

  • It has eliminated protection for old growth-dependent species and salmon in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, making it easier for logging to take place there.

  • Its "misleadingly named Healthy Forest Initiative" threatens the national forests by reducing the level of environmental analysis and public participation required for logging projects on 20 million acres. In fact this initiative does little to protect communities from wildfires, since it allows logging to continue targeting the largest, most valuable trees.

  • Experts say logging can increase the intensity and frequency of forest fires because logging debris is highly flammable, logging roads allow people into forests where arson or accident is a frequent cause of fires, and logging dries out forests.

    During Friday night's debate, the president defended his much criticized decision not to send the Kyoto climate protocol to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Signed under the Clinton administration, the agreement limits the emission of greenhouse gases linked to global warming by industrialized countries.

    The United States is the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter, but the president defended his position, saying, "Well, had we joined the Kyoto treaty, which I guess he's referring to, it would have cost America a lot of jobs."

    "It's one of these deals where, in order to be popular in the halls of Europe, you sign a treaty. But I thought it would cost a lot – I think there's a better way to do it."

    Kerry replied by saying, "The fact is that the Kyoto treaty was flawed. I was in Kyoto, and I was part of that. I know what happened. But this president didn't try to fix it. He just declared it dead, ladies and gentlemen, and we walked away from the work of 160 nations over 10 years."

    That is why it is that people in some parts of the world do not like the United States, Kerry said. "The president's done nothing to try to fix it. I will."

    The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has given the Bush administration a failing grade on environmental performance.

    "Deceptively named initiatives such as 'Healthy Forests' and 'Clear Skies,' mask the Bush administration's agenda of allowing industry to increase their profits at the expense of environmental protection and public health, the LCV said. "In particular, the Bush administration has attacked, weakened or undermined laws providing clean air, clean water, and toxic waste cleanups."

    The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. It will cover domestic policy, so it is possible that the environment will again be a topic of debate.

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