Bush Has A Long Way To Go On Environment

7 April 2000

By Stentor Danielson

If asked who the "green" candidate in this year's presidential race is, most people would pick Democratic candidate and current Vice President Al Gore. Gore is proud of his long history of pushing the liberal agenda of environmental protection -- so much so that he has been labeled an "extremist" for his criticisms of the internal combustion engine.

On Tuesday, Republican candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush launched a plan to change that perception. During an appearance at a former steel mill renovated into a wallboard plant in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Bush unveiled a plan to encourage industries to clean up "brownfields" -- sites polluted by previous industry -- rather than developing new land. While Bush's plan is a step in the right direction, voters should be wary of allowing him the mantle of environmentalist.

Bush's brownfields proposal, modeled on the Texas Voluntary Cleanup Program enacted in 1995, intends to cut back on the red tape surrounding rehabilitation of polluted sites. He plans to increase protection from lawsuits for companies redeveloping brownfields and to extend a tax break for such industries that was scheduled to expire at the end of next year. These developments would make it more attractive for companies to locate on land that has already been ruined, rather than cutting a fresh chunk out of our dwindling wilderness.

Bush's timing was excellent. Pennsylvania is a state that is very proud of its natural heritage. And while events such as the closing of Bethlehem Steel have reduced the state's industrial sector, such production is still key to the state's economic well-being. A strategy that protects the environment without punishing industry will sound good to Pennsylvanians, whose votes are projected to be critical in November's election.

Even apart from his political aims, Bush's plan to keep industry in the areas it has already ruined has merit for people of all states. Unfortunately, the philosophy underlying it is not so admirable.

Bush's environmental policy proposes an end to "command and control" practices in environmental protection. He claims that voluntary cooperation between the national government, the states and industries will get better results than "waiting for Al Gore to wave his magic wand." The ideology meshes a conservative dislike for big government with a popular desire to safeguard our environment that will help Bush gain crucial Democratic and independent voters' support.

That sounds good; however, it is not such a practical policy. Despite a few shining examples, industry, as a whole, has a poor record of taking environmental concerns to heart.

Texas' environmental record during Bush's term is a mixed bag, at best. Bush tells supporters that, though Texas may be a polluted state, it has improved significantly during his term. For example, 451 brownfields were cleaned up during the Bush administration -- a significant improvement over the state's previous cleanup record. At the same time, though, Houston was on its way to surpassing Los Angeles as 1999's most polluted city.

And contrary to Bush's model of government-industry cooperation, business interests getting in the way of environmental protection was common in Texas during Bush's term.

Bush likes to pat himself on the back for making Texas the third state to enact legislation attacking the grandfather clause that exempted certain older factories from new pollution controls. What Bush doesn't mention is that the bill he signed created a voluntary program - in which only 120 of 830 grandfathered plants in Texas have enrolled. Bush met an earlier attempt to force compliance with environmental standards for grandfathered plants with a veto. The voluntary program was enacted in the face of threats by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw federal highway funding based on Texas' poor environmental record.

The problems have also spread to Texas' regulatory agencies. The three men Bush appointed to lead the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) were all veterans of industry. Their studies have shown that air pollution in Texas was down 11 percent between 1994 and 1997. This conflicts with a study done by the EPA, which indicates a 10 percent rise in pollution.

Yet despite his questionable record, Bush has criticized Gore's ability to improve the environment, attacking the Superfund Site program that Gore helped to create as inefficient and costly. Bush even went so far as to say that Gore will have "a lot of explaining to do" regarding the views he expressed in his book, Earth in the Balance, even though he admits to having never read the book.

Granted, Gore's environmental record is not perfect. Bush has ample reason to criticize the Superfund system, which has so far spent $30 million -- out of an initially projected $5 million -- to clean up the nation's worst brownfields. Having lived in a Superfund site, I can attest that the process of cleaning up is often an uphill battle. But, to quote Jesus, Bush's favorite political philosopher, "let he who is blameless cast the first stone."

Maybe Bush has turned over a new leaf. It is encouraging that he wants to talk about protecting the environment. But it is still far too soon to call him a "green" candidate.

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