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Bush Giving Loggers and Polluters Free Rein, Say Greens

New moves by the Bush administration to lift regulations on logging companies and big industrial polluters have been denounced by environmentalists, who say an unprecedented assault is being made on 30 years of legislation protecting America's forests, water, air and seashores.
Two low-key announcements in the past week, apparently timed to minimize media coverage, have removed environment-friendly provisions from the Clean Air Act and from rules governing the management of specially designated national forests.

The White House has also given tacit approval to the incursion of oil prospectors and mining companies in a number of national parks. Oil and gas drilling has already started in one previously protected area, the Padre Island National Seashore in south-west Texas, and is likely to be approved soon in other parks in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.

A congressional showdown is expected over the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where unspoiled wilderness is vulnerable to energy exploitation because the Republicans control the House and Senate after this month's mid-term elections. Environmental lobby groups said yesterday the election victories appeared to have emboldened the President and revived ambitions to rewrite the environmental rule book.

Gregory Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington environmental lobby group, said of the latest measures: "Sadly, there is every reason to believe that this is just the leading edge of an assault on fundamental protections for our air, water and public health."

The first new announcement, made late last Friday, knocked out a central pillar of the Clean Air Act that forced companies to make additions to older factories to upgrade the level of protection against air pollution at the same time. The second announcement removed almost all federal oversight of forest management. Supervisors of the country's 155 national forests will now decide whether to authorize drilling, logging or mining, almost irrespective of legislation protecting wildlife species or old trees.

In many areas, environmentalists say, Forest Service officials are already beholden to powerful local industry forces and are likely to cave in to their interests. "They are pulling out the strongest single element in the law that assures that forests will be managed in a healthy manner," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

When oil and gas exploration is the issue, decision-making power in many areas is already in the hands of local authorities. The federal government has the power to veto commercial exploitation, but the Bush administration chose not to exercise that power when approval was given this month to build two natural gas wells on the Padre Island National Seashore. Eighteen-wheeler trucks have since been rumbling right up to the sand dunes where a rare breed of turtle usually nests and hatches its young. What was once a 65-mile stretch of unspoiled barrier island – the longest in the world – is now rapidly turning into an industrial zone.

There is also a question mark over the White House's top environmental regulator, Christine Todd Whitman. She is thought to have fought unsuccessfully to prevent the latest anti-environmental measures, just as she fought unsuccessfully to maintain Washington's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. In an editorial this week, The New York Times urged her not to resign, saying she was the environmentalists' only advocate within the administration.

The Bush administration has shown it is not immune to some environmental appeals. Last year, it vetoed two projects in Florida, where the President's brother, Governor Jeb Bush, happened to be facing a tough re-election battle.



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