Cause for Celebration?
Thirty-five years ago, Earth Day was celebrated as a nationwide rally demanding a cleaner environment through greater awareness and governmental action. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act, no Clean Water Act, and lead was still used in gasoline. American citizens grew more and more concerned about creating more healthy and sustainable future.
It is clearly debatable whether we should celebrate or commiserate this holiday. What had been originally a national teach-in that would force environmental issues into the national spotlight as become a day for political photo-ops and planting trees. Fittingly, President Bush's planned photo-op had been rained out last week, but he listed his environmental "achievements" anyway and reminded Congress to pass his Clear Skies Initiative and his energy bill. He would have been at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, our most visited national park and could have seen the effects of acid rain and how pollution from industries hundreds of miles away can affect the beautiful landscape.
In many ways, the United States should be proud of what it has accomplished, with both air and water quality greatly improved since 1970. The EPA's air quality report released in December 2004 reported national ambient air pollution levels between 1976 and 2003 fell 76 percent for carbon monoxide, while lead levels fell 98 percent, nitrogen dioxide dropped 42 percent, and sulfur dioxides decreased by 72 percent. Despite issues involving the quality of drinking water, no one fears of getting sick or dying from drinking tap water.
The past four years have witnessed nothing but mismanagement and exploitation under this administration. President Bush, in another of his straight-talking pronouncements, has stated "It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it." During the past three years and under the radar of public awareness, environmental policies have been steadily unenforced or reinterpreted to allow more of those impurities into our air and our water and more and more of our natural resources to be exploited.
In 1970, the Clean Air Act set national standards for air quality and regulations on emissions, both from industry and automobiles. Bush's new Energy Bill, passed by the House last week, has a provision buried in it that could turn back the clock on progress made by the Clean Air Act.
If the bill were to become law, communities whose air pollution comes from other cities and sources would be allowed to delay meeting national air quality standards until their neighbors clean up their own air. In other words, "downwind" areas get to hold off on dealing with their pollution problems until "upwind" areas get their own pollution under control. Welcomed by industry groups and championed by the energy lobby, this provision is clearly not in the American people's best interests. Ultimately, the blame-shifting and pollutionsource-hunting will only delay real progress in meeting air quality standards.
Passed the House by a 249-183 vote, the Energy Bill reflects many of President Bush's energy priorities. It would harm the environment in opening an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling and do little in terms of creating alternative energies, instead giving $12 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to traditional energy industries, including oil, natural gas, and coal producers. It also removes any legal liability for these energy companies connected with water supplies contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE.
Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, a member of the House Energy Committee, said in a radio address last week that :"We lose when we resort to desperate drilling schemes that despoil our most precious wildlife and wilderness areas. We win when we invest in renewable technologies such as solar and wind energy." President Bush clearly does not see the need for such renewable technologies as the environment issues were completely ignored in last year's election and took a back seat during the State of the Union. But when his cabinet is filled with former industry leaders and lobbyists, what can we really expect as global warming continues to be disregarded as a myth in this administration.
The mission of Earth Day remains just as urgent as it was thirty five years ago, if not even more so. The Bush administration, despite mounting evidence that the planet is heading towards ecological disaster, continues to break apart policies that protect the waters, skies, and lands from environmental damage and give huge subsidies to oil and coal industries rather than focusing on alternative energies for the future.
Front Page (April 29, 2005)
• Current Issue •