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Bush Admin. Weakening Environmental Enforcement;

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 21, 2005

Failure of Bush Administration's Clear Skies Initiative Activates Regulations to Weaken Environmental Enforcement

Interview with John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean air program, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Listen in RealAudio:

In 2002, the Bush administration introduced their so-called "Clear Skies Initiative," which would have re-written the bedrock Clean Air Act passed more than 30 years ago. The legislation, which Washington observers say was written by industry, would have tilted the law to favor polluters and away from protecting public health by reducing toxic emissions as quickly as possible. The bill also would have done nothing to regulate greenhouse gasses, a major cause of global warming.

But after three years of trying, the Republican-controlled Congress has been unable to get the bill out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where it died recently on a 9 to 9 vote. But the administration immediately activated regulations that implement many of the same things to weaken enforcement that the failed legislation was designed to do.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean air program about these regulations, one of which regulates interstate air pollution, and another that deals with extremely toxic mercury emissions, that Walke warns are especially harmful.

JOHN WALKE: Now, this rule truly is one of the worst rules ever to be signed by EPA. It is a dangerous, dishonest and illegal effort that ensures that the American people will be exposed to excessive and dangerous levels of mercury pollution from power plants for at least the next two decades. This is especially inexcusable considering that mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that affects the developing brain of young children and the developing fetus. The Bush administration basically kowtowed to the power plant industry and adopted a rule that will give them far too long to continue polluting and that will fail to protect the American people.

BETWEEN THE LINES: With all these emissions, isnít the guiding principle whatís called cap and trade?

JOHN WALKE: EPA rules rely upon a pollution trading scheme for mercury, nitrogen and sulfur pollution just as the Clear Skies legislation relied upon a trading program for those three pollutants as well.

BETWEEN THE LINES: But hasnít cap and trade proven to be quite effective in cleaning up sulfur and nitrogen pollution in the past?

JOHN WALKE: Thereís actually very little if any opposition to pollution trading approaches for smog and soot pollution. Weíve had a successful program addressing acid rain that uses the trading approach and my organization, the NRDC, supported that program and we support responsible trading programs for smog and soot today. But the key is ìresponsible.î The Bush administration is using the friendly label of a ìpollution tradingî approach, which is sensible if correctly done, really as cover for an approach that gives the power plant industry alone an additional two decades to continue polluting at excessive and harmful levels. We could all agree that a pollution trading program that requires very deep reduction by a few years from now would be protective of the public health. But that is far, far from what the Bush administration is doing. So the objection of public health groups is not to trading programs per se; itís instead to using trading programs as an excuse for giving industry 20 years that they can solve today with available technology and that they can do cost-effectively.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Wouldnít industry just pass on the costs of cleaning up pollution to consumers anyway?

JOHN WALKE: Well, thatís an excellent question. One would think that especially in a highly regulated industry like the utility sector that the cost could be passed along to ratepayers. In fact, we know that if utilities were to clean up their mercury poisoning by 90 percent within the next three to five years that the average cost to electric customers would be on the order of one to three dollars per month on their electricity bill. Now, with the utility industry also being deregulated in recent years, in fact those costs are not always passed on directly to rate payers. My view is that itís a combination of the utility industry being opened up to market forces where they are not as easily able to recapture those costs, in their view, and frankly just a combination of ideology and opposition to regulation generally.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Regarding mercury emissions specifically, from 1990 to 1999, airborne mercury emissions in the U.S. dropped by almost half, to 113 tons. Can you explain how it dropped so quickly?

JOHN WALKE: Absolutely. The Clinton administration in the ë90s issued two regulations requiring over 90 percent reductions from two types of incinerators: medical waste incinerators and hazardous waste incinerators, both of which had at the time pretty significant mercury emissions -- not nearly as much as coal-fired power plants. And EPA set an aggressive rule, and industry complained that technology was not available or that it was too costly, and in fact, those complaints were wrong. And weíve experienced very deep reductions in mercury from those two industrial sectors. We can and should do the same thing here. We should require on the order of 90 percent reduction in mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, which, at 48 tons, is the largest industrial sector in the U.S. still polluting at that level. Mercury pollution in the US puts an estimated 600,000 newborn children at risk from harmful levels of mercury poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and data from the Food and Drug Administration. This is a public health crisis in this country, and the largest remaining sector of industry in this country that has escaped regulation for its mercury pollution is power plants.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, do the American people just have to live with this, or can anything be done about it?

JOHN WALKE: No, the silver lining to the cloud in all of this is that earlier Congresses and presidents in this country -- actually, President Bushís father in the 1990s -- adopted stricter clean air laws. And the Bush administration EPA does not have the authority to disregard that stronger law. Now, they can try getting away with it, but the truth is that the mercury rule they have signed this week is completely and utterly unlawful, and fortunately we have checks and balances in this country, and Iím quite confident that a federal judge will intervene to ensure that that rule is overturned.

For more information, call the Natural Resources Defense Council at (202) 289-6868 or visit their website at


Melinda Tuhus is producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 4, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.



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