Bush Administration Undercutting Forest, Air Regs

With classic below-the-radar timing, the Bush Administration unveiled plans the day before Thanksgiving to gut regulations that govern the management of our National Forests. Conservationists pilloried the move, saying it’s designed to suppress public involvement while undercutting ecological sustainability.

A few days earlier, on November 22, the Bush administration announced its plans to weaken key provisions of the Clean Air Act, creating loopholes that will allow existing polluters to increase emissions and avoid cleanup.

The National Forest Management Act, or NFMA, sets out broad standards for managing our National Forests in a process called Forest Planning. Each of the 155 forests within the US Forest Service is supposed to complete one of these comprehensive documents every 15 years.

The original NFMA regulations, passed by Congress in 1982, required that Forest Supervisors look at what is best for the whole forest. It also required that they consider such factors as protection of wildlife, watershed protection for clean drinking water, recreational needs of the public, as well as timber production in their forest plans.

One of the lynchpins of the Act was that “viable populations” of native wildlife and fish be assured under these forest plans. In short, if a forest plan failed to provide that a certain species native to a forest would maintain a realistic breeding population, the plan was faulty.

The new NFMA regulations proposed by the Bush Administration fail to keep this “viability” requirement, and only “encourage” forest managers to make these assurances. In political terms, the difference between “must” and “may” is incredibly important. The new regulations would allow for near total local discretion, including a much louder voice for the timber industry. A national standard for National Forests seems to make more sense.

Perhaps most alarming of the Bush Administration’s proposals is to allow these complicated forest plans to be adopted and amended without preparing an environmental impact statement-or EIS for short. These are documents prepared by the Forest Service and serve a vital role in informing the public of what the action to be taken is, and just what effects those actions will have on a variety of interests, from recreation, to the impact on the local economy, to the effects on wildlife and sensitive and threatened species.

Without this level of governmental disclosure, conservationists say, most people would never have the chance to see what the Forest Service was doing.

Currently, the forest planning process is a collaborative effort among Forest Service personnel, local industry, concerned citizens, biologists and other scientists. The proposed new regulations would effectively eliminate this type of cooperative effort in the planning process.

When considering passage of the Clean Air Act during the 1970s, Congress required all new major sources of air pollution to use the best available control technology to reduce air pollution.

At the same time, Congress recognized that more than 17,000 existing power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial sources of air pollution faced tremendous financial and technical burdens if required to install modern air pollution controls. So Congress exempted them from the Clean Air Act based on the assumption that many of them would be retired over the next 30 years and would be replaced with cleaner, new facilities.

To insure that existing polluters would not sidestep these provisions by upgrading or expanding their dilapidated facilities, Congress required the installation of modern pollution controls whenever a facility upgraded or expanded such that significant increases in air pollution would occur.

Known as “New Source Review” (NSR), this provision does not require modern pollution controls if the exempted polluters are simply performing “routine maintenance.” Unfortunately, the polluting industries have used a broad definition of “routine maintenance” as a shield to allow them to upgrade, expand and increase their pollution without installing the public health protections mandated by Congress.

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration sued 51 coal-fired power plants and 50 oil refineries by charging them with illegally polluting our air under the guise of “routine maintenance.”

Rather than spending their money on pollution controls, these industries gave generous contributions to Bush’s 2000 campaign. During the 2000 election cycle, the oil, gas and electric utilities industries paid Bush more than $2.3 million .

The Bush rollback will impact the lives of people throughout the southern and central Appalachians. According to the Clean Air Task Force, if the 51 coal-fired power plants charged with violating NSR were required to meet modern pollution control standards, more than 3,000 premature deaths and 60,000 asthma attacks could be avoided.

A draft proposal from the administration allows facilities to increase pollution by replacing up to 15 percent of the total capital cost of their facility without having to cleanup. The second proposal allows greater emissions by letting facilities replace equipment without installing modern controls.


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