Who's Watching the Watchdogs?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been having a rough time of late. First, there was the resignation of Christie Whitman, the agency's director.

Then, there was the release of a draft report on the environment that deleted language that linked global warming to human behavior and replaced it with data from the American Petroleum Institute that was designed to discredit the concept of global climate change.

And, if that weren't enough, the agency issued a report acknowledging that it had made false statements about air quality in southern Manhattan on Sept. 18, 2001, a week after the terror attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers.

So it should come as no surprise that, as the Kansas City Star reported in September, a pair of high-levvel EPA officials "who were deeply involved in easing an air pollution rule for old power plants took private-sector jobs with firms that benefit from the changes." The rule change allowed more than 500 older power plants to upgrade without adding pollution-control devices.

The Star reports that just "Days after the changes in the power-plant pollution rule were announced," the chief of staff in the EPA's air and radiation office took a position at Southern Co. of Atlanta, a utility ranked as the nation's second-worst power-plant polluter and "a driving force in lobbying for the rule changes." The official, John Pemberton, was hired as director of federal affairs for the company, which the Star reports made more than $3.4 million in political contributions during the last four years.

In addition, Ed Krenik, EPA associate administrator for congressional affairs, was hired by Bracewell & Patterson of Houston, the "law firm that coordinated lobbying for several utilities on easing the power-plant pollution rule," the Star reported. "The firm's Washington office also serves as home base and shares staff with the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which was created by several utilities, including Southern Co., to be the public voice favoring the rule changes the EPA just enacted."

None of this should be a surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Bush administration, which boasts one of the worst environmental records of any in decades, if not ever. After all, this is an administration that has spent its time carrying the water of the energy, mining and chemical industries.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions and their effects on policy says George W. Bush received more than $2.9 million in contributions from energy and natural resources industries during the 2000 election cycle and $824,300 so far from this industry during a 2004 election cycle not even a year old.

The results have been pretty obvious, ranging from an energy plan that calls for more oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to the nixing of higher fuel efficiency requirements for automobiles, from the aforementioned relaxation of emission regulations on power plants to changes in clean water rules.

But those are fairly straightforward trade-offs. What is rather chilling is the administration's apparent willingness to edit out facts it finds inconvenient. Your scientists tell you the earth is getting warmer, creating long-term environmental problems? Just edit them out of the report -- even if rising global temperatures and the dangers they pose are generally accepted as fact by the mainstream of the scientific community.

Residents, businessmen and politicians in lower Manhattan raise concerns that the air in the neighborhood in and around the site of the former World Trade Center may be dangerous? Just tell them it isn't, even if you haven't gathered the data to prove it.

It's a disturbing pattern that has ruled the administration's approach to other issues, as well, the most obvious of which is the push to invade Iraq. It seems forgotten now, but a majority of the American public did not support the invasion until after the Bush administration -- with the help of Tony Blair and his British cabinet -- essentially created the great fiction of Saddam Hussein's weapons program. Saddam poses a danger to the region, the United States and the world because he (a) had weapons of mass destruction, or (b) was about to get them.

Of course, it turns out that Saddam was nowhere near possession of a nuke and there remains no evidence that he had recently possessed chemical or biological weapons. The Saddam-weapons rationale was built on a series of questionable intelligence and outright lies. (We won't get into the administration's repeated assertions -- despite evidence to the contrary -- that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were working together.)

So, as we move from the presidential preseason into the more serious race later this year, we need to keep in mind how the Bush administration functions and do our best to make sure voters across the country can tell a lie from the truth.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at

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