Louisiana's Edwards Deflects Foes

Environmentalists charge governor with breaking pledge; he says he's just being practical.

EDWIN Edwards is governor of Louisiana again, and up to his ankles in controversy. Sworn in for his fourth, nonconsecutive, term Jan. 13, Mr. Edwards already has state environmentalists nipping at his heels.

In his previous administrations - in the 1970s and 1984-88 - Edwards earned one of the worst ratings in the nation from environmental watch groups. But last year, in his highly publicized campaign against David Duke, Edwards said he had gained new respect for the environment.

He promised not to turn back the environmental programs advanced by Gov. Buddy Roemer (R), who left office in January. Pointing to his promises for more aggressive environmental policy, Edwards supporters promptly dubbed the once and future governor "the new Edwin Edwards."

But, angered over early criticism of the direction the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has taken, Edwards admonished state lawmakers, in an address on the first day of the 1992 spring legislative session, to be realistic. Appointment criticized

Although he went on to promise increased environmental enforcement and regulations for Louisiana, many environmental activists here cite at least three areas where they say the governor has already failed.

They criticize Edwards's appointment of oil businessman Kai Midboe as head of the DEQ, his scrapping of a controversial environmental score card program for businesses which used a point system to punish polluters by reducing their state tax exemptions, and his decision to push through hundreds of permits from the DEQ to businesses that had failed to win approval in the Roemer administration.

Such signals have caused great consternation among Louisiana environmentalists, including former Governor Roemer.

Linda King, director of the Environmental Health Network, a statewide coalition of a variety of environmental organizations, says: "He's only been in office a couple of months, but so far, from our perspective, Edwards has been a complete disaster." Ms. King said that although DEQ director Midboe is viewed by many as an independent chiefly because of his past ties to Republican governors, "that independence doesn't count for much when the rest of the staff is composed of cronies from past Edwards adminis trations, people who have proved that they don't look at the environment as a top priority."

King also criticized Edwards for gutting funding for environmental research within the state's Health Department: "He's taken away all of their money, which wasn't much to begin with, and now they're going to have to live on grants, which aren't big enough for the kind of work we need to do in Louisiana."

Equally critical is Melissa Thorm, a professor at Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic: "The problem is that this administration is already listening primarily, if not exclusively, to the chemical industry, and not anyone from the environmental movement.

"Citizens around the state who are worried about our environment are very worried about what's going on in Baton Rouge."

Dr. Thorm specifically attacked Edwards's move to do away with the environmental scorecards. "It was a compromise concept in the first place in which we said if you pollute you will lose half of your tax exemptions," she said. "But now Edwards, by getting rid of the scoring system, is saying, 'Come on down and pollute all you want and you can still get your exemption.' " Score card ridiculed

Edwards sees the score card issue differently: "I said during the campaign that the score card was not the proper thing to do. I never did understand how the environmentalists signed off on this thing. It said if industry comes to Louisiana and pollutes, we won't give you $1 million in exemptions, we'll give you $800,000. To me that's the worst thing environmentalists could support, and now they're criticizing me for scrapping a program that was flawed to begin with." Petition promised

Edwards promised in his address that he would be vigilant on environmental matters, noting, "I'm just as concerned about the environment as anyone else." He told his audience to register their complaints if they see anything that he's doing wrong with the environment.

Linda King says she is going to do just that. She has promised to sign a petition demanding Edwards' recall from office.

"He's right about what he said," said King. "There is no new or old Edwards, there's only one, and for the environment he's the worst thing that could happen to Louisiana."

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