Muckraker

With the election in view, the Bush EPA stages a pro-environment road show -- across the swing states.


Amanda Griscom
June 26, 2004 1:05AM (UTC)

Have a look at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Mike Leavitt's calendar over the last several months and you'll notice that it appears to be in lockstep with the Karl Rove playbook.

"I'd hardly call it coincidence," said Beth Viola, a leading environmental strategist for the Kerry campaign, "that after the EPA spends nearly four years pandering to industry, all of a sudden Leavitt is waltzing around battleground states in a green mantle -- doling out grant money, announcing new initiatives, threatening industry with enforcement actions, making amends to swing voters like hunters and anglers disgruntled about rollbacks. It's quite a show."

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Leavitt's recent wave of swing-state politicking has won his agency the moniker "Election Protection Agency" in Beltway circles, according to Aimee Christensen, director of Environment2004, an organization committed to motivating voters on environmental issues. And many campaign analysts expect Bush's greenwashing efforts to intensify. Republicans still remember pollster Frank Luntz's 2003 memo declaring, "The environment is probably the single issue on which the Republicans in general -- and President Bush in particular -- are most vulnerable," a sentiment supported by subsequent Luntz polls. And in early June, Yale University released a comprehensive nationwide report in which 84 percent of respondents said the environment would be a factor in their presidential vote and 35 percent called it a "major factor."

To get a sense of Leavitt's damage-control efforts, consider his whereabouts last week: Wisconsin and Michigan, two of the hottest swing states. On "Ask the White House"-- a get-to-know-your-officials Q&A feature on the official government Web site -- Leavitt wrote: "I am in Ann Arbor, Michigan, meeting with Governor Granholm and state and local elected officials to discuss the Great Lakes. I have also just presented a Clean School Bus Grant to the Ann Arbor Public School District, and tomorrow will [be traveling to Milwaukee to] announce nearly $76 million in grants to restore brownfields in our country to useable land."

Brownfield grants help revitalize polluted industrial sites for development and community use. Leavitt awarded Wisconsin (another swing state) $10.38 million for that cause, the biggest check given to any state competing for the money. In fact, of the five largest brownfield grants, all but one went to a swing state: Michigan got $7.05 million, Pennsylvania got $3.21 million, and Missouri got $2.65 million. (California, which is not in play in the upcoming election, got $8.2 million.)

Viola says that the brownfield grants, though much needed, are also an easy political giveaway in an election year. "Leavitt shows up with a bag of money saying, 'Let's clean up your communities,' and the assumption is that voters will just forget about three abysmal years of assault on public health."

The Bush EPA denies any political motivation behind the brownfield and Clean School Bus grants, which help schools convert old diesel buses to cleaner technologies. Dave Ryan, an agency spokesperson, insisted that the brownfield grants were determined by a panel of career employees, not by Karl Rove, and that making the announcement in an election-year hotspot was just coincidence: "Look, Milwaukee may be a politically hot city, but this was about brownfields, not politics," he told Muckraker. "Milwaukee has historically done an excellent job with brownfield restoration. That's why we picked it."

Maybe so, but connect the dots between the other announcements and initiatives the EPA has unveiled this election year -- and those it hasn't -- and it's hard to deny that they paint a distinctly politicized picture. In January, Bush requested new funding (albeit far less than what environmentalists deemed necessary) in the 2005 fiscal year budget to restore the Great Lakes. Leavitt has since made nearly half a dozen trips to the region, which is dense with swing states, to publicize these efforts. Meanwhile, he has faced a storm of criticism from officials and activists in that region and beyond for his failure to provide reasonable protections against mercury pollution in America's waterways.

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Then, in April, there was the Earth Day announcement that the Bush administration planned to move from its "no net loss" of wetlands to a new goal of an overall increase in wetlands every year. One (non-election) year earlier, the administration had proposed a controversial plan to strip federal protections from up to 20 million acres of wetlands. Critics called the move a blatant appeal to the hunting and angling community -- a traditionally Republican constituency that has been so outraged by the administration's attempted assault on wetlands that it marched on Washington in January.

Next, in late May, Leavitt dropped by Las Vegas, Nev., another swing state perturbed over environmental matters -- most notably, nuclear waste storage in Yucca Mountain. His reason for showing up: to promote a waste-recycling program known as "America's Marketplace Recycles!" at the national convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers. The program calls on mall developers and retailers to recycle construction debris and use recycled products. "Shopping centers are a magnet for young people. What better place to teach our youth the value of recycling?" Leavitt said, but he failed to mention that his host state would have to add a fourth R -- "radioactive" -- to "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."

And it was in the swing states Minnesota and Missouri -- in addition to Washington, D.C. -- that Leavitt announced (yes, repeatedly) the landmark controls for diesel emissions that the EPA rolled out last month. (On its campaign Web site, the administration listed those controls as one of its leading environmental achievements well before they became official.) Kevin Curtis of the National Environmental Trust notes that the only companies that could suffer financially from these diesel regulations -- Caterpillar and Cummins -- are headquartered in states where the presidential election outcome is a sure thing: Illinois (blue) and Indiana (red). (In fairness, Leavitt also announced the rule in Illinois.)

To further emphasize the EPA's commitment to clean air, Leavitt put in a feel-good public appearance in Tennessee -- another swing state. In mid-May, he traveled to Knoxville to commend a company for developing technology to limit the pollution generated by idling trucks. "[These are] ideas big enough to change the world," Leavitt beamed as he praised IdleAire Technologies Corp.

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"It's stunning that he had time to do this but has refused repeatedly to meet with manufacturers of mercury-pollution filters," said Frank O'Donnell, director of Clean Air Trust. "The visit had nothing to do with policy developments of any kind. It was just another throwaway P.R. stunt."

Christensen added that the EPA is squandering its energy on politics at a time when so many public-health concerns are being neglected: "Not only has Leavitt made all his major announcements in swing states -- at the exclusion of others -- he's been incredibly selective about spotlighting certain problems while he neglects the countless public-health controversies that loom larger than ever."

It's only reasonable to expect that any administration will spin its activities during a presidential campaign; that's simply part of election-year gamesmanship. But in the context of the escalating environmental concerns that this administration is failing to address -- climate change, mercury pollution, drilling on public lands, lapses in enforcement, manipulation of sound science, disregard for due process -- this particular administration's political maneuvers have spun out of control.

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Muck it up

Here at Muckraker, we always try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge). The more sources we have, the better -- so if you are a fellow lantern-bearer in the dark caverns of the Bush administration's environmental policy, let us know. We welcome rumors, tips, whistleblowing, insider info, top-secret documents, or other useful tidbits on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them. Please send 'em along to muckraker@gristmagazine.com.

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Amanda Griscom

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