Environmental Setbacks

From the National Resources Defense Council
The Year’s Most Notable Environmental Assaults

Sewage in Our Waterways
Beaches and rivers across the country are exposed to bacteria, viruses, fecal matter, and a host of other wastes from sewage releases. In the Clinton administration, the EPA proposed to address the problem through a new Clean Water Act rulemaking, the result of a lengthy consensus process that included environmentalists and federal, state, and municipal authorities. But when the Bush administration took office in January 2001, it shelved the proposal for three years of “internal review.” In November 2003, the Bush administration proposed to legalize the release of inadequately treated sewage into waterways, as long as it is diluted with treated sewage, a process the agency has euphemistically labeled “blending.”

Sewage in Our Drinking Water
Florida is injecting treated sewage into so-called deep wells. The injection of treated sewage has continued despite concerns that, in Florida’s hydrogeology, contaminants in the treated sewage could migrate upward into the drinking water supply. Recent studies finding cryptosporidium and giardia, two bacteria that cause illnesses in people, show that this is exactly what is happening in south Florida aquifers. However, rather than bringing the waste injection to a halt, as current Safe Drinking Water Act rules require, the EPA has proposed a special exemption, just for Florida, that allows injection of treated sewage to continue.

The End of New Wilderness
In April 2003, the Bush administration reversed the federal policy at the core of the U.S. wilderness preservation system. This policy protected public lands while federal land managers assessed them for possible protection as officially designated wilderness areas. In a sweeping legal settlement with then-Utah governor and current EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, the administration renounced the government’s authority to conduct wilderness inventories on public lands or to protect more areas for their wilderness values. The sudden settlement involved no public comment or open deliberations. This new policy threatens to open millions of acres of wilderness quality public lands to drilling, mining, road building, and other development.

More Mercury Pollution in Our Air
Last year, 44 states issued warnings for eating mercury-contaminated fish, a 63 percent jump from 1993 when 27 states issued such warnings. The central sources of the problem are U.S. power plants and other industrial facilities, which together spew more than 150 tons of mercury into the air each year. But the Bush administration has refused to regulate mercury through the same tough approach used for other hazardous air pollutants, which are subject to rigorous standards under the Clean Air Act, using advanced pollution control technology. Rather than protect the public from this persistent hazard, the EPA announced a plan that allows nearly seven times the mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants than would be allowed if mercury were to be regulated like other hazardous air pollutants, and gives industry decades longer to comply. Originally, a 2018 deadline was contemplated, but the EPA is now looking at even further delay.

Reckless Energy Development
New Mexico’s spectacular Otera Mesa is a banner example of the pervasive threat to our last wildlands posed by the current drive for energy development at any cost. Otero Mesa boasts more than a million acres of Chihuahuan grassland and, in a state plagued by drought, holds enough fresh drinking water to sustain half of the state’s population. Although previously protected by the Bureau of Land Management policies, the Bush administration eased environmental safeguards in January 2004 to allow drilling after limited environmental analysis and public review, despite widespread local opposition.