With the announcement that taxpayers, not business, will have to pay for Superfund cleanups, the president continues his assault on the environment.

By Anthony York
Published February 27, 2002 8:12PM (EST)

President Bush's assault on the environment continues. In the latest in an ever-growing list of green-unfriendly moves, Bush made clear in his new budget that he will no longer ask polluting corporations to pay for Superfund cleanup sites.

Guilty corporations get a free pass from Bush, but taxpayers don't. In 2003, Bush is asking John Q. Public to pony up $700 million to fund Superfund cleanups, nearly half of the overall budget allocated for all such cleanups. Taxpayers will pay the entire $1.5 billion tab in 2004 -- and that total is still far short of the $3.8 billion in corporate money that used to sit in the fund when Democrats controlled Congress.

In other words, not only will taxpayers foot the bill once paid by environmental polluters, but fewer polluted sites will be cleaned up in the diminished Superfund. "I have five sites ready to go tomorrow, but I'm sending out letters saying there's no money at this time," said Myron Knudson, director of the Superfund division based in Dallas, in an interview with the New York Times.

Bush and his strategists clearly believe that his war-inflated popularity ratings give him the political cover to pay back his big-business allies. But -- leaving aside verbal flubs that shake up the world's currency markets -- Bush's pro-industry approach to environmentalism may be his greatest political vulnerability. From air conditioners to arsenic, fuel efficiency standards to Arctic drilling, the president's laissez-faire approach to environmental protection has hurt him with voters since he was governor of Texas. This week, now that the post-Sept. 11 bipartisan coalition is ancient history and the president is hungry for a domestic policy victory, the spotlight will be on Bush's environmental policy as the Senate opens debate over its version of a comprehensive energy policy. That debate is scheduled to feature showdowns on hot-button issues like corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for cars and trucks, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As the oilman in chief spent the week posing for environmentally friendly photo ops, Democrats were preparing a new round of attacks on the president's energy plan.

From almost the moment he took office, Bush has consistently been on the wrong side of public opinion on environmental matters. He was widely criticized for his decision to increase caps on acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water, as well as his about-face on a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Last week, Bush also gave the OK to a new nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. During the campaign, Bush had pledged to hold off on the new site until there was conclusive evidence that the dump site was safe. Nevada leaders say the science is still incomplete, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was so angry about the White House's decision that he called Bush a liar.

The move is glaringly hypocritical, given the airtight scientific proof Bush insisted was necessary to prove the existence of global warming. Although his own panel of scientists said last summer that global warming is real, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended the White House's inaction on cutting emissions or raising fuel standards by saying, "It is uncertain what has caused it and what the solutions might be."

Meanwhile, the president was mugging on the South Lawn Monday, checking out a number of cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells and emit no harmful greenhouse gases. Late last year, Bush announced he will seek millions in tax credits to advance fuel cell technology, without any requirement that the new cleaner cars ever be made commercially available.

Environmentalists called the fuel cell plan a meaningless gimmick that would give Bush an excuse for not raising CAFE standards.

"It's one of these proposals that this administration has become famous for because it's got no teeth in it," says League of Conservation Voters spokesman Scott Stoermer. "It just exists on paper and has absolutely no bearing on reality."

Most Democrats and environmental activists are supporting a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that calls for a spike in fuel efficiency standards. The current standard is 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks. Kerry wants to increase that to 35 mpg by model year 2013, a move that Detroit says will cost jobs and endanger auto safety.

Automakers and workers blasted the Kerry proposal in a Michigan pep rally Monday, just days before debate was set to begin on the Senate floor. "The UAW submits now is not the time to impose onerous, excessive and discriminatory fuel economy standards on General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler that will lead to job loss, which will of course have an adverse effect on the economy," said Richard Shoemaker, international vice president of the United Auto Workers.

Kerry's fellow presidential wannabe, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., also lined up to bash Bush's energy policy.

"President Bush's feeble formula to address air pollution and global warming points in one direction. We must lead in another," Lieberman said in a statement last week. "Next week, the Senate will discuss two distinctly different visions for our nation's energy policy -- one that's mired in crude oil and one that aspires to a better way. Not only is our energy independence at stake in this debate, but some of our most precious pieces of public land are at risk."

Lieberman plans to convene hearings of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee next month "to shine a light on some of the more subtle ways the administration is working to weaken or roll back critical safeguards to benefit special interests."

Meanwhile, attacks from the Democratic National Committee have also been focused on Bush's energy plan. "From the day he released the energy lobby's energy plan, he has scrambled to find photo ops and symbolic gestures in an attempt to mislead Americans into thinking his energy plan is anything other than the industry-authored payback that it is," said DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Those attacks have been countered by a number of new ads by the auto industry. One ad, paid for by the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, almost seems to be a parody of itself.

"The government wants to take away my SUV," the fictional Sally says to her husband, Joe, in one of the ads. "The Senate can change laws, but they can't change reality. People need SUVs."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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