An Environmental Report Card

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 28 Jun 2003
Time: 04:46:21
Remote Name:


Date: 030626
Op/Ed, New York Times, June 26, 2003
On her way out the door, Christie Whitman has issued the Environmental Protection Agency's first statistical assessment of the nation's environment. The bottom line is that although much remains to be done, things are greatly improved from 30 years ago. The air is healthier, the water cleaner. But underneath the numbers, and of course unobserved in the report, lies an exquisite irony: what has brought us here are the landmark environmental laws of the early 1970's - laws that the industries bankrolling the Bush administration have been fighting tooth and nail ever since, laws that the administration itself has tried to amend or weaken.
The report has already acquired a certain notoriety because it omitted, on White House orders, any meaningful discussion of global warming, a problem that President Bush seems to think will go away if nobody talks about it. In a sense, this may have been the administration's final insult to Mrs. Whitman, who has been bounced around on other issues during her two-plus years as the agency's administrator. Now most people are likely to remember her report, which she had intended as an apolitical statistical portrait, for what it leaves out rather than for the useful information it contains.
On the plus side, the report shows that air pollution has declined by 25 percent over the last three decades even as the country's population, economy and vehicle traffic have exploded. Fully 94 percent of Americans are served by drinking water systems that meet federal health standards, as opposed to 79 percent 10 years ago. Major rivers, like the Hudson, are no longer used as industrial and municipal sewers. Yet in a sense we have just begun. More than 125 million Americans suffer from intermittent unhealthy air, 270,000 miles of rivers and streams remain too polluted for fishing and swimming, coastal estuaries are in generally poor shape, and suburban sprawl continues to devour open space at an alarming rate.
The report is a compelling argument for preserving - and broadening where necessary - the reach of environmental law. Mrs. Whitman recognized as much when, in one of her last acts, she proposed tough new regulations on construction equipment and other diesel-powered off-road vehicles, a huge and lightly regulated source of air pollution. But she has spent most of her tenure playing defense. The administration moved to weaken the existing Clean Air Act without putting anything in its place. It has done little to regulate farm runoff, a major source of water pollution. And Mrs. Whitman herself has set in motion a review of the Clean Water Act that could leave over 60 percent of the nation's streams and 20 million acres of wetlands exposed to development and pollution.
Indeed, before she leaves town, and as a final legacy, Mrs. Whitman might consider taking that unfortunate proposal off the table. That could make her agency's next report even rosier.
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Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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