October 29, 2001

More Environmental Rollbacks

While the nation's attention is focused on the war against terrorism, the Bush administration is moving, both overtly and covertly, to dismantle major elements of Bill Clinton's environmental legacy. It is difficult at a moment of crisis to devote much thought to things like mining rules or snowmobile bans. But if the president's top officials have time to undermine environmental regulations, the public needs to pay attention as well.

The war against the Clinton rules goes back to Inauguration Day, when the new administration suspended a half-dozen directives approved in Mr. Clinton's final weeks. Among these was a rule reducing the arsenic content in drinking water. The arsenic blunder came to symbolize the administration's fecklessness on environmental issues generally, and only when Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, promised to review the matter did the issue recede. But as Interior Secretary Gale Norton now reminds us, the demolition effort proceeds.

On Thursday, Ms. Norton wheeled out her subordinates at the Bureau of Land Management to announce the reversal of Clinton-era regulations involving hard-rock mining for minerals like gold, copper and lead. The Clinton rules would have imposed stricter environmental standards on mining operations and, for the first time, would have given federal officials the power to block mines likely to cause "substantial irreparable harm" to water quality and other natural resources. The department claimed that the rules had been concocted at the "eleventh hour" and were unduly onerous. They had in fact been in the works for years, and did little more than impose on the hard- rock mining industry some of the same standards that apply to other extractive industries.

At least Ms. Norton was up front about it. Much of the assault on the Clinton rules is occurring under the radar, in obscure courtrooms where industry is challenging them, and in closed-door negotiations that shield the administration from public accountability. Industry lawsuits against government rules are hardly unusual. What is unusual is the administration's decision to use this litigation as an excuse to weaken, through settlement talks, popular rules that it would prefer not to attack directly.

A small but telling case in point is the administration's sneaky effort to reverse a Clinton rule phasing out snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park — a rule buttressed by overwhelming public approval and years of conscientious science. Under pressure from various industry lawsuits, however, the administration has agreed to review the matter and issue what is widely expected to be a more industry-friendly proposal next year.

In like fashion, the administration has signaled a retreat from Mr. Clinton's most ambitious land conservation measure — a Forest Service rule protecting 60 million largely untouched acres of national forest from new road building, new oil and gas leasing and most new logging. Nine separate lawsuits have been filed against the plan, by private companies and state governments. In each case, the Justice Department has failed to defend the conservation rule in court. Nor, from the look of things, does it intend to. The sad truth is that the Bush administration would like nothing better than a court-ordered excuse to rewrite the plan so as to accommodate the very commercial activity Mr. Clinton had hoped to prevent.

Another possible rollback that has received virtually no public attention involves the nation's diminishing wetlands. After a decade of struggle, environmentalists finally persuaded the Clinton administration to close a loophole in the clean water laws that had exposed many thousands of acres of valuable wetlands to commercial development. In the week before Earth Day last April, when Mr. Bush was trying to atone for the arsenic fiasco, Mrs. Whitman promised to keep the loophole closed. Within days, however, the Justice Department began talks with the home builders and other industry groups — talks from which the environmentalists say they have been excluded. Mrs. Whitman's resolve may again be tested.