Don't mock Earth Day by weakening laws that protect air, land, water

IN less than a month, Americans will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, marking a generation of progress in cleaning up our environment and protecting this country's natural wonders. Meanwhile, instead of building on successes, Congress is preparing to dismantle environmental laws.

These remarkably successful laws have stemmed the flood of sewage and toxic chemicals into our rivers, greatly reduced lead and smog in the air, brought the bald eagle and other species back from the brink of extinction, curbed mining practices that left land scarred and rivers orange with coal waste, helped protect our food and drinking water from pesticides, and protected many of our most important and breathtaking natural resources.

Yet the House has just passed legislation as part of its Contract With America that would dismantle the structure for carrying out the laws that brought us these and other environmental gains. Advertised as ''regulatory reform,'' HR 9 has moved so rapidly that there has been little opportunity for an adequate national debate on its consequences. The Senate is considering parallel legislation, introduced by Sens. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas (S 343) and Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah (S 135).

HR 9 would block good laws

As the Natural Resources Defense Council showed in ''Breach of Faith,'' a thorough analysis of HR 9's implications, the ''regulatory reform'' bill would make efforts to interpret and enforce the nation's 19 leading environmental laws exceptionally difficult by imposing a maze of new bureaucracy and legal challenges.

The House bill requires agencies to undertake more than 20 new cost and risk analyses before issuing any new health or environmental-protection safeguards, such as those overhauling how meat is inspected or water quality is monitored. Special interests are allowed to bring their lawyers into court and sue over each of these analyses. More than 60 new opportunities for legal action are created in the House bill that can be used to block government from issuing any new safeguards.

By imposing cost and risk analyses as overriding factors, HR 9 erases the environmental-protection safeguards that have worked to dramatically reduce air and water pollution, and protect our lands.

Sounding a bipartisan alarm

This bill takes a logical idea -- assessing costs and risks -- and turns it into a tool of obstruction. A price tag would be put on the benefits of environmental and health protection, as if we could put a dollar value on saving lives, preventing birth defects, preserving national parks, and saving the ozone layer.

The House bill has been condemned by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol Browner and the architects of America's environmental protection laws, who sounded a bipartisan alarm. Edmund Muskie, former secretary of state and the force behind passage of the original Clean Air and Clean Water Acts as a senator in the 1970s, Robert Stafford, GOP chairman of the Senate Environment Committee in the 1980s, and Russell Train, President Nixon's EPA administrator and the first head of the Council on Environmental Quality, all warn of this bill's sweeping threat. As Mr. Muskie said, ''[This bill] would turn the clock back to the days when the special interests made the rules and the people absorbed the risks.''

Unfortunately, HR 9 is only one of many congressional efforts to weaken environmental protection. The House majority whip, Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, is proposing to repeal the Clean Air Act. And the chairman of the House Public Works Committee, Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, has announced plans to pass legislation dramatically weakening the Clean Water Act out of his committee before Congress goes on recess in early April.

The sponsors of these measures openly concede that they are working with special interests to put this legislation together. Mr. Delay, for example, says working with special interests to draft legislation makes sense because ''they have the expertise.'' Mr. Shuster has provided special access to polluters, but shut EPA officials and public-interest groups out in the cold.

The Senate is now deliberating the ''regulatory reform'' legislation and may make key decisions by late April. As Earth Day 25 approaches, Americans must make their support of tough environmental laws known to Congress and protest the undoing of a generation of progress.

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