AS with so many other issues, the Bush-Clinton race presents voters with a clear choice on the environment. And when their running mates are considered as well, the contrast between Republican and Democratic tickets becomes even more obvious. But what Bill Clinton and George Bush have very much in common in this presidential campaign is the demand to defend an environmental record that is open to sharp debate and criticism.
President Bush - who in 1988 declared that he'd be the "environment president" in the style of Theodore Roosevelt - has found himself under fire on a number of important environmental issues. Among these are wetlands, endangered-species protection, oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, and the cleanup of toxic wastes. The United States, under his leadership, was seen at this year's Earth Summit in Brazil as dragging its feet on such things as reducing carbon-dioxide emissions that cause global warming and protecting biodiversity.
As governor of Arkansas through the 1980s to the present, Clinton has achieved an environmental record that at best can be called mixed. The Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., last year published a "Green Index" ranking all states on 256 indicators of natural resource and environmental conditions and on state policy initiatives to improve environmental health. Arkansas ranked 48th. (Oregon was first, Alabama last.) On policy initiatives alone, Clinton's state fell to the bottom.
The Bush campaign has been quick to pick up on this. The president was in the South last week, and at one rally he sounded a refrain similar to his earlier criticism of Michael Dukakis and Boston Harbor: "If you go swimming in an Arkansas river, keep your mouth closed, and hold your nose."
Michael DeLand, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality and lead attacker on the issue, told a recent National Press Club gathering that Clinton "has a deplorable record in Arkansas as an environmentalist." The problems in Green Forest
In particular, environmentalists point to the waste from chicken-processing plants in northern Arkansas, which has polluted rivers and streams. Critics also say Clinton through much of his tenure as governor loaded state commissions with industry-friendly appointees.
"In Green Forest, a small town located in northwest Arkansas, the problem of water contamination reached a critical situation," states an analysis by the League of Conservation Voters. "Not until contamination reached crisis levels did the governor intervene." And even though action was taken, notes this analysis, six years later, "many residents still must carry clean water into their homes from elsewhere."
Clinton disputes the methodology used in formulating the "Green Index," but he also acknowledges that, in the '80s, he "faced the old short-term tradeoffs between jobs and the environment" and that he "made the choice for jobs in a poor state without enough jobs or federal help for environmental protection and cleanup."
In the past year or so, environmentalists have noticed a distinct improvement in policy and enforcement under Clinton. Last year, he signed a major package of state environmental laws and also has appointed more representatives of environmental groups to boards and commissions. When such actions are taken into account, says Clinton, Arkansas actually ranks 17th among states in environmental health. (City and State magazine ranks Clinton's state 28th on the environment overall and 10th in terms of wetland s protection.)
As for the water-contamination problem in Green Forest, effluent from the waste-water treatment plant there now meets state and federal water-quality standards. The city last week received a national award from the Environmental Protection Agency for operation and maintenance of the treatment plant.
Among the other "green" achievements touted by the Clinton campaign: Public and private agencies in the state this year received 14 "environmental excellence" awards from the regional EPA office; more than 90 percent of all rivers and streams in the state (and 100 percent of all lakes) are officially recognized as safe for fishing or swimming; Arkansas is one of only five states meeting all federal standards under the Clean Air Act.
Still, as the League of Conservation Voters notes: "When it comes to the environment, the old adage `better late than never' may apply to Bill Clinton." The Sierra Club has endorsed the Clinton-Gore ticket but in doing so emphasized his "intentions," "commitment," "platform," and "proposals," rather than his record as governor.
The authors of the Institute for Southern Studies "Green Index" acknowledge the improvements made in Arkansas since study research was done. They also recently blasted the Bush administration for trying to score campaign points by using the state rankings.
"If Bush gets comfort from this report, it's because he hasn't read it," says Bob Hall, one of the study's co-authors, who notes that the "Green Index" also includes a strong indictment of the Bush administration.
"The study goes issue by issue and cites how the regulatory agencies under Bush have abdicated responsibility to protect the environment and public health," says co-author Mary Lee Kerr. "Safe drinking water, air pollution, energy conservation, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, the workplace environment - in every case, Bush's people have blocked progress and even disobeyed mandates from Congress to take stronger action."
Not surprisingly, Bush administration and campaign officials say otherwise.
"We spend ... $130 billion a year, more than any nation on the face of this earth, in protecting our environment," says Mr. DeLand, referring to total federal and private expenditures. "And for that reason, our environment is better than that of any industrialized nation."
Among the things the administration can brag about: a 72 percent increase in the EPA's enforcement budget since Bush took office, with record-setting indictments, convictions, and prison sentences as a result; a Bush-led breakthrough in the 10-year congressional stalemate over the Clean Air Act; a planned phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals four years ahead of international deadlines; doubling of federal spending for wetlands acquisition and protection; doubling of research spending on renewable energ y and conservation; a moratorium on off-shore oil and gas development along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, southern Florida, New England, and most of California; and blocking construction of the Two Forks dam in Colorado under the Clean Water Act.
All of this is acknowledged by environmentalists, who also were generally pleased with the appointment of DeLand to chair the Council on Environmental Quality and William Reilly to head the EPA. But those who anticipated an "environment president" are disappointed in many ways as well. Bush gets a `D' grade
Examples: Bush has pushed for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and his national energy strategy continues to favor oil and nuclear power over renewable energy. He disregarded government scientists who advocated greater protection for the threatened northern spotted owl and appointed a panel that overrode the Endangered Species Act.
Bush has advocated limiting citizens' appeals regarding federal timber cutting and industrial pollution. He signed wetlands protection legislation but wanted to limit a new definition of wetlands in ways that would remove protection for 20 million to 40 million acres. (The administration went back to the drawing boards on defining wetlands when government scientists and others protested.)
Looking at Bush's overall record on the environment, the League of Conservation Voters gives him a "D" grade.
If reelected, Bush might change his top natural resource and environmental managers - a new secretary of the interior, for example - but the overall policy direction would likely remain: increased emphasis on "making the polluter pay" together with market-based mechanisms for conserving natural resources.
How would federal environmental policy look under Clinton?
Among his specific pledges: support a boost in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to 40 to 45 m.p.g.; prohibit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and designate the area a wilderness; restore US funding for United Nations population programs; convene a "summit" of all interested parties to solve the timber problem in the Pacific Northwest; and create a civilian advanced research agency to develop renewable energy technologies.
Beyond that, Clinton promises to reform the Superfund program to accelerate what has been a slow process of cleaning up the nation's 22,000 toxic-waste sites, base national wetlands policy "on science instead of politics," and develop revenue-neutral market incentives that "reward conservation and penalize polluters and energy-wasters."