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Environmentalists send their wish list to Obama

Twenty-eight green groups compile 359 pages of suggestions, hoping for a green revival post-Bush.

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Integrity and transparency. Instead of “midnight” rulemaking and catering to industry’s desires on environment, agencies should return to a fair and open approach to regulation, the report says.

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“This administration has been much, much worse for the environment than even the Reagan administration,” says Don Barry, a former assistant secretary for the US Fish and Wildlife Service who co-edited the “transition” report. “This is why the urgency felt this time is probably much greater than ever before.”

Environmental justice will get a lot more attention under President Obama, environmentalists hope. One key recommended policy change would repair an overlooked public-reporting requirement that until recently provided citizen activists with one of their most powerful weapons against industrial pollution: the Toxics Release Inventory or TRI.

In 2004, a Louisville, Ky., neighborhood group called the Rubbertown Emer­gency Action Committee compared EPA air-monitoring data and TRI data to try to identify polluters. The result was a citywide strategic air-pollution reduction program to reduce 18 toxic chemicals.

Such efforts would be difficult or impossible today, given the EPA’s 2006 reduction in TRI reporting requirements. Luke Cole, director of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, whose group has also used TRI data to fight pollution affecting low-income Californians, says restoring that statute is vital.

“TRI is critical in terms of accountability and a community’s right to know,” he says. “The only way to know what is going into the air in your neighborhood is if the plant nearby is required to tell you.” The TRI change, he says, has “given polluters a free pass to pollute in secret.”

Similarly, since the Superfund cleanup fund ran dry at the start of the Bush years, the government has had to pay for cleanups with taxpayer money – or else bargain with companies to pay for part of it. But that has meant painfully slow progress at the many sites that are so often near low-income, multiracial communities.

The new “Transition to Green” report urges that funding be restored – a welcome change, says Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Falls Church, Va.
“Superfund is a disaster,” says the veteran activist, who earned her pollution-fighting spurs battling the infamous Love Canal toxic site in her Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood. “We’re hoping at this point that the Obama administration and Congress will make it a priority. Right now, it’s totally broke.”

Instead of a steady supply of fees from toxic-material manufacturers, the fund gets just enough from the federal budget each year to go to sites that meet the criteria and do what Ms. Gibbs calls “band-aid measures.”