"Bush has a terrible reputation on the environment, and deservedly so," says Myron Arnowitt, head of the local waterways watchdog group, Clean Water Action. George W. Bush hasn't ignored the environment -- the usual practice of a president for whom conservation isn't a priority; instead, his administration actively works to reverse environmental protections and weaken enforcement of current regulations, say Arnowitt and a host of other local environmental activists. Federal agencies controlling environmental policy are run by executives for "natural resources" industries, they say; Bush's push to cede federal environmental policy to the states will aid businesses that hold the environment hostage to local jobs.
"He's really tried to attack almost every fundamental environmental law we have," Arnowitt says. "These are basic protections that have been around for several generations. Some of these things are issues that are no longer ... Republican or Democrat, they are becoming like Social Security" -- something most of society already accepts.
The Bush administration has a "uniquely bad" environmental record compared to other recent presidents, says Rose Garr, field organizer for the statewide group PennEnvironment. "It's one of the most anti-environmental administrations on record. They are letting our laws and regulations be rewritten by corporate polluters."
Heather Sage, an outreach coordinator with the environmentally focused Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), calls the Bush record "a very systematic and well-calculated rolling back and weakening of progress that had been made. Some of our most revered environmental protections are being systematically dismantled."
Some of the Bush administration's most contentious moves were centered far from Pittsburgh -- pulling out of the Kyoto anti-global warming accord, for instance, as well as attempting to open the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, weaken arsenic standards in drinking water, and push energy policy changes formulated in closed-door meetings led by a former energy-industry executive, Vice President Dick Cheney.
One of the easiest places locally to see the potential effect of the Bush environmental policies on the ground -- literally -- is in the Allegheny National Forest, 513,000 acres of woodlands located due north of Pittsburgh and just west of Erie.
Despite the name, only 2 percent of our local national forest is pure wilderness. The other 98 percent is open to logging and other industrial uses. In Pennsylvania, rights to oil and gas under the land can be (and usually are) owned by someone other than the surface owner. Since 1986, the U.S. Forest Service, which administers all national forests, has washed its hands of potential conflicts between industry and those who want to preserve the landscape, claims Jim Kleissler, a 10-year veteran with the Allegheny Defense Project, which fights threats to the forest as well as proposing new wilderness areas and trails.
A Bush logging proposal prompted Kleissler's Allegheny Defense Project to sue the federal government on Sept. 23, alleging that the Bush administration plans to allow 1,670 acres in the forest to be logged without properly studying the environmental impact or asking for public input.
Last year, the Bush administration signed the "Healthy Forests Initiative," which Kleissler charges is just another in a string of lovely sounding euphemisms for putting the needs of industry above nature. The Initiative allows logging operations in many new instances, including the cutting of plots under 250 acres, without sufficient scrutiny, says Kleissler. The lawsuit alleges that the Bush administration divided those 1,670 acres into 19 smaller parcels to get around the need for studying the impact on animals, trees and the soil.
This acreage covers sections of the forest blown down in a July 2003 severe windstorm. Far from making a mess to be cleaned up, such blowdowns regenerate the soil, provide new wildlife habitats and offer spots for young trees to flourish, not to mention recreation areas for hikers.
"The ideological front for the Bush administration," claims Kleissler, is that "commercial logging is the primary use for our national forests. They're going in reverse, back to where they were 20 years ago."
Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP -- the Group Against Smog and Pollution -- listens to the Bush campaign's environmental proposals and accomplishments from the president's Web site: "President Bush's Clear Skies legislation would dramatically improve air quality by reducing power plants' emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and mercury by approximately 70 percent over the next 15 years ..."
That's weaker than the current Clean Air Act, she says.
"EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule, modeled after Clear Skies, would impose mandatory caps on power plant emissions of NOx and SO2 ..."
Weaker again, she says.
"The President's strategy will ... regulate mercury emissions from power plants for the first time, and cut mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018."
Could be done 10 years earlier -- the technology is there, she says. Other activists note a Bush administration attempt to quadruple the wait for reducing power-plant mercury emissions. Mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, ends up in fish, and consequently most state waterways now have fish-consumption limits.
"Many of the Bush administration's own pollution plans have diluted and delayed enforcement of regulations of the Clean Air Act," continues Filippini. "Which means many unnecessary asthma attacks, premature deaths, respiratory problems and a whole slew of other diseases that come from exposure" to pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Some of the country's top-polluting plants sit within an hour or two of Pittsburgh.
Under Bush, she and other activists say, the government has backed off from policing (and sometimes suing) utilities that rebuild older power plants again and again to circumvent the legal requirement to install current pollution controls on new sources of pollution.
"The Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule," the Bush campaign also writes, "will ... cut emission levels from construction, agricultural and industrial diesel-powered equipment by more than 90 percent, and will also cut sulfur levels in diesel fuel by more than 99 percent over current levels."
Ah, now there's something for Bush to trumpet, Filippini says -- although the administration could go further, retrofitting older vehicles to take the improved diesel fuel. "This is a great thing," she says, since GASP gets many complaints from residents near railroad switching yards. In McKeesport, Filippini has watched as several high-polluting locomotives idled for hours on end in the middle of a summer's day, and has fielded complaints from other trainyards in Sharpsburg and North Side. The new Bush rule should help.
Clean Water Action's Myron Arnowitt isn't sure praise is deserved, though -- even in this instance. Improved diesel rules were in the works for years, he says: "I would give Bush credit for not interfering."
One thing no activist denies: No matter the worth of rules they propose, this administration has always devised wonderful names and public-relations packages for them. Rose Garr of PennEnvironment reads "Healthy Skies Initiative" out loud and smiles in frustration. "Oh man, the administration -- they're good at this."