Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Real Threats To Homeland Security (and air, workplace, food and drug security as well)

When George Bush is asked about his plan for economic growth and making more jobs, his solution generally revolves around tax cuts, tort reform and...reducing regulations that allegedly burden business. (Of course, he doesn't mean all regulations. Some regulations are good, like the new regulations that will keep millions of workers from earning overtime.)

The bad regulations that Bush blames for hurting job creation and economic growth are those that protect employees at work, that keep our air and water clean, and that keep our food and drug supply safe -- by putting restrictions on corporations that maximize profits by minimizing workplace safety, environmental protection and food & drug safety.

How to make life easier for his business buddies? It's far too loud and messy to actually change the laws in Congress, so the Bush administration has found a much easier -- and quieter way: Stack the agencies with representatives of the industries they regulate who will quietly and efficiently change the regulations that determine how the laws are interpreted and enforced.

Newsday continues to bring these practices to light in its excellent series on Erasing the Rules which "examines President Bush's efforts to curtail regulations and to loosen the reins on federal contracts to the private sector." It began with the story about OSHA's failure to address reactive chemical hazards and continues with stories about industry representatives taking over the regulatory reins at EPA and the Food and Drug Administration -- agencies that are supposed to regulate their former companies.

Today's article describes the rollback of EPA's New Source Review enforcement, which was mentioned by John Kerry in the last debate (although if you didn't already know what he was talking about, I doubt if you would know what he was talking about.)

So here's what we're talking about. Listen up America -- and Senator Kerry.

When the Clean Air Act was passed, power plants, as well as chemical refineries were expected to reach certain clean air goals. The industry argued, with some reason, that there were a lot of very old plants that were soon to be retired and it didn't make much sense to spend a lot of money upgrading them. So a compromise was reached which let the old plants off the hook. They wouldn't have to upgrade their pollution controls unless they made major improvements in the plant. Minor maintenance did not count.

But, like children who aren't constantly monitored, the power and chemical companies cheated by hiding major improvements (that should have triggered upgraded pollution controls) behind the mask of minor maintenance. To make a long story short, the Clinton administration finally lost patience and sued operators of more than 50 power plants in 12 states on behalf of EPA. As the Clinton administration was heading out, several of the companies had seen the wisdom of reaching some kind of settlement with the EPA.

Enter George Bush and...Guess what?
Perhaps no issue epitomizes the Bush administration's approach to environmental rulemaking than the high-stakes struggle over the "New Source Review" provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Lobbyists and political appointees with ties to industry played a central role in making policy changes that would, if upheld by the courts, let companies upgrade old power plants, refineries and factories without installing modern pollution-control equipment.

To make a long story short, Bush staffed EPA with ex-energy industry executives, the companies that were in settlement negotiations said "Nevermind," and the regulations were softened. EPA's top career enforcement personnel -- many of whom had been there since pre-Reagan days -- resigned. And the whole issue of New Source Review is currently in court.

By why stop with the environment and workplace safety? There are still other regulatory agencies to be taken over; the Food and Drug Administration, for example. What to do when you're the walnut industry and you think it would be a fine idea to put unsubstantiated claims on labels saying walnut consumption reduces the risk of heart disease?
Even three outside experts the FDA hired said a link between walnuts and heart disease was "uncertain."

But then the agency relaxed its standards. And on March 9, it reached an unprecedented decision: Labels could claim that walnuts "may" reduce heart-disease risk while noting that research was "not conclusive."

The eased standards were long sought by the food industry, which found key allies in the Bush administration FDA. Top appointees who once advocated for FDA-regulated industries have heeded industry lobbying in ways that medical groups and consumer advocates say jeopardize public health.

After food-industry groups complained, a top appointee killed a measure to discourage consuming a cholesterol-raising fat. Plans to eliminate misleading sunscreen labels have been tabled following cosmetics-industry complaints. A post-Sept. 11 plan to help contain food contamination is nearly a year late as food-processing groups have objected.
And then there's the old "revolving door." Come into a regulatory agency from the industry that it regulates, do your best to soften regulations and enforcement on the industry you once worked for, then leave government "service" and head back into your old job. It's an old story, but the Bush administration has taken it to a new level.

Take, for example, Lisa Jaeger, who "worked for three years in the Washington office of Houston-based Bracewell & Patterson, a powerhouse law and lobbying firm with close ties to the Bush family and a client list that includes some of the nation's biggest electric, oil and chemical companies." Bracewell also happens to be the lawfirm that housed the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, set up by six of the largest coal-burning utilities to lobby against New Source Review enforcement. Bush appointed Jaeger EPA deputy general counsel, the agency's second-ranking lawyer.
Then last March, after rising to the position of acting general counsel at EPA, Jaeger resigned and found a new job: her old job.

She rejoined Bracewell & Patterson, where she's now a registered lobbyist for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association and the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, among other clients.

Jaeger is hardly the first industry lawyer to be given a senior job as an environmental regulator, but experts, critics and personnel records all suggest that the Bush administration has raised the technique to high art.

Compared to his predecessor Bill Clinton's choices, Bush's appointees to senior environment-related jobs are much more likely to have been working as corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and executives at the time of their appointment, according to a Newsday analysis of government records.

Charged by the White House to make environmental regulations more flexible and less costly, these high-level Bush appointees at EPA, the Interior Department and elsewhere have launched a broad effort to rewrite pollution rules, ease curbs on development of natural areas, and allow more drilling, logging and mining on federal lands.
And what has the Bush administration accomplished in the field of environmental protection?
Bush's EPA, for example, has rejected mandatory curbs on emissions linked to global warming while easing anti-pollution requirements on old power plants and factories, all in the name of boosting the economy and saving jobs.

As part of its push to make environmental rules more flexible, the EPA has also proposed but not yet finalized plans to require reductions of three major pollutants: mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The EPA would set an overall cap on emissions, while allowing plant operators to essentially decide among themselves how much each should cut as long as they comply with the overall cap.

Meanwhile, Bush's Justice Department, saying it wants to avoid long lawsuits that delay environmental cleanups, has adopted a more conciliatory style in enforcing the Clean Air Act and other bedrock environmental laws.

Over at the Department of the Interior, a series of administrative changes has lowered barriers to drilling for oil, mining minerals and raising livestock on federal lands, moves administration officials say are needed to boost the struggling economies of Western states and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

And the Department of Agriculture is pushing for more commercial logging in national forests, citing the need to protect towns from wildfires that start in forests that have become unnaturally dense because of decades of fire-suppression efforts.

There have been some exceptions to the pattern, such as the EPA's adoption earlier this year of tough new emissions standards for diesel engines. But critics and many analysts say the common thread that ties together almost all of the administration's other environmental initiatives is to cushion the impact of regulations on business. (More damage here.)

What Is To Be Done?

Read these articles. Bookmark them. Send them to all your friends -- and especially to everyone you know who still can't decide who to vote for. (Especially "security moms" who may not realize that most real dangers their children and husbands face is in the air they breathe, the food they eat, the drugs they take and the workplaces they go to.)

The bottom line is that while these jokers control the White House and both houses of Congress, there's little that can be done.

So, request some vacation time, get in the car or get on the web and buy a ticket to a swing state (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Missouri, etc.), and go work to get the vote out so we can send these guys back to their former jobs once and for all.