Minding the gaps

It's not easy covering the many fronts of the Bush administration's steady assault on environmental regulations, but it's a journalist's job to try.

Travesties like the 2003 Clear Skies Act – a proposed amendment to the Clean Air Act  co-sponsored in the Senate by that chamber's most notoriously anti-environment member, James Inhofe of Oklahoma – are relatively easy to spot. But the byzantine workings of the federal bureaucracy offer deregulators an array of far more insidious levers by which to dismantle or weaken environmental protections. Tiny procedural changes and office maneuverings, so hard to cover in an average newspaper column, can have a dramatic impact on the role the government plays in protecting or degrading the environment.

Fortunately, there are energetic reporters on the beat shedding light on some of those practices. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post published a story detailing how the Department of the Interior has slowly ground to a halt the listing of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. No one issues a fiat declaring the list closed; rather, incremental changes such as eliminating citizen petitions in certain cases and adjusting the requirements for designation as an endangered species has brought the process to a near standstill.

"As listings have slowed, lawsuits challenging the administration's practices have skyrocketed," the Post reports. Gallingly, the onslaught of lawsuits intended to force the department into action is one of the main reasons officials use to justify the backup: "Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall said his agency, which decides on most proposed listings of endangered species and their critical habitat, has been hamstrung by a slew of lawsuits and has just begun to dig out."

Along the same lines, an AP reporter investigated the EPA's new rules regarding construction on ecologically vital wetland areas. The new regulations will function along the same lines as carbon offsets: Developers will be able to destroy wetlands so long as they fund the restoration of wetlands elsewhere. If that sounds good in theory, the AP points out two potentially giagantic problems: "a wetland often is important to a local ecosystem and 'it doesn't help to move it 100 miles away'" and "the Army Corps could not ensure that 40,000 acres of wetland restoration work, required annually, actually was being done."

With a little digging, it’s clear to see that a program that might sound good on paper may not work even if it could be enforced.