The Reagan Administration Fails Environmental Protection

article image
Reagan Administration officials are handing over to private use the clean air and water, forests, grasslands, coal and oil that belong to us all. In the name of "getting the government off our backs," they are giving away our natural heritage.

The Reagan administration fails environmental protection it promised and the result will be an increase in pollution.

As we’ve pointed out before, the words “economy” (from the Greek oikonomia) and “ecology” (from the Greek okologie) derive from the same root . . . oikos, the Greek term for “household”. While economy refers to the management of that household, then, ecology refers to the study of it.

It is, in part, because of the linguistic connection between the two words that we’ve decided to devote this issue’s Economic Outlook to the following excerpt from a book entitled Ronald Reagan and the American Environment, which was put together by Friends of the Earth . . . the Natural Resources Defense Council . . . the Wilderness Society . . . the Sierra Club . . . the National Audubon Society . . . the Environmental Defense Fund . . . the Environmental Policy Center . . . Environmental Action . . . the Defenders of Wildlife . . . and the Solar Lobby.

Though the material printed here simply provides an overview of the policies that may well be–a bit at a time–robbing future Americans of the right to enjoy a world that’s at the very least as clean as the one we share now, the book itself pinpoints each weakened statute and unenforced law. Copies are available for $6.95 each, plus 70 cents shipping and handling (California residents should add 6% sales tax), from Friends of the Earth Books, Dept. TMEN, San Francisco, California.

There’s little good in complaining without taking positive action, though. It’s our hope, in printing this excerpt and providing access information for the complete report, to help remind this administration that–regardless of the good that it has undoubtedly done–any attempt to solve our economic problems while ignoring ecological concerns is as likely to succeed as would be an attempt to manage a household without first understanding it.

President Reagan has broken faith with the American people, the Reagan administration fails environmental protection. During his first 14 months in office, he and his appointed officials have simply refused to do the job that the laws require and that Americans expect of their government–to protect the public health from pollution and to use publicly owned resources and lands for the public good. Instead, Reagan Administration officials are handing over to private use the clean air and water, forests, grasslands, coal and oil that belong to us all. In the name of “getting the government off our backs,” they are giving away our natural heritage.

We have watched for a year as the Administration took or proposed scores of actions that veered radically away from the broad bipartisan consensus in support of environmental protection that has existed for many years. We thought it time to examine the entire record. We began with apprehension. We end appalled.

Pollution will increase because the rules designed to control it and the agencies that enforce the rules are being systematically weakened. The Administration’s attention has focused upon easing the burdens for polluters instead of protecting the public and the land.

The Administration has moved swiftly. It has changed clean air rules to allow many coalburning plants to dump more sulfur dioxide into the air, where it re-forms as acid rain. It has withdrawn rules to control industries that dump toxic chemical wastes into landfills or flush them into city wastewater plants where they corrode equipment. From strip mines to waste dumps the Administration has cut back enforcement of the laws. Its agencies make fewer inspections and take many fewer illegal polluters to court.

When it could not get Congress to change the environmental laws, the Administration used budget cuts to cripple the agencies that carry them out. Eight major statutes passed in the last 12 years assign to EPA a job that will double in size in the next few years. The Administration wants to slash EPA’s budget by 40 percent. The job will not get done and the cost in terms of sickness, death and material destruction will be very great.

A century ago, the federal government was giving away public lands and their resources practically free of charge. Since then, the American people have come to see their public lands as a priceless resource to be used for the long-term benefit of all. A succession of laws over many decades has directed that these lands be used for wilderness, wildlife habitat, recreation, watershed protection and scenic beauty, as well as for minerals production, timber cutting, and livestock grazing. The law requires management of public forestland and grasslands to protect the long-term interests of the public and assure that private use does not destroy the land’s long-term productivity.

The Reagan Administration has made a mockery of the multiple-use/sustained-yield concept that governs the public lands. It has put huge amounts of the nation’s coal, oil and timber up for sale at bargain basement prices, without considering the long-term consequences, or showing the need for this massive transfer of public resources to private hands. Far more coal and timber are on the block than industry can use. They will be used for private speculation instead of public benefit.

The lumber companies control more than a three-year supply of uncut timber on the public lands. Yet the Administration subsidizes even more sales–in virgin areas that might remain wilderness. Sixteen and one-half billion tons of coal are under lease to private industry–enough to last two centuries at the present rate of production. Yet the Administration . . . wants vastly expanded coal leasing.

In handing over the public resources to private interests, the Reagan Administration is devastatingly imprudent. More than that, it is betraying the agreement between the American people and their government–expressed in many laws-that the government will shield the public lands from abuse, develop commercial resources in a prudent balanced way, and protect noncommercial resources for lasting use.

The Administration’s energy policy has been to eliminate virtually every program that provides direct benefits to individuals and small businesses seeking to conserve energy or use solar energy, while protecting billions of dollars in subsidies for nuclear power, synthetic fuels, and the oil industry.

The Administration is blind to the dangers of nuclear power. It has withdrawn safeguards against nuclear proliferation and, seeking a quick solution convenient for industry, has overridden a cautious process to deal with nuclear waste disposal. The Administration is considering the use of fuel from nuclear powerplants to make nuclear weapons, erasing the distinction drawn by President Eisenhower between Atoms for Peace and weapons for nuclear war.

The Reagan Administration’s approach to the environment and natural resources is not conservative; it is radical. Conservatives have recognized and helped to shape the essential role of government in conservation of the air, water and land we all share. Without government intervention, for example, the company that voluntarily refrains from dumping wastes into a stream will be at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis another company that freely uses public waters as a private sewer. But the Administration sees government regulation of private pollution simply as an inconvenience for industry–a nuisance that should be reduced or eliminated.

Real free market principles are unpalatable to the Reaganite Sagebrush Rebels as well. They want the Federal Government to stop managing the public lands. So the Administration is turning over management of public rangeland to ranchers who pay grazing fees on public lands that are one-fifth the fees charged for private lands. This not only costs the nation money, but invites overgrazing, which has seriously damaged more than half the public range. Likewise, western farmers irrigating with water from federal dams pay one-fifth or less of the cost. Taxpayers pay the rest. The Administration has increased the budget for western water projects.

The problems of cleaning up pollution, managing public lands and water resources wisely, and encouraging the development of safe clean energy for the Nation’s future cannot be resolved by private self interest alone. Government has a crucial role in protecting the natural world we all share–and on which our survival depends. That is why President Theodore Roosevelt built and protected our National Forest System in the early years of the century. It is why the Congress passed the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act in 1960, the Wilderness Act in 1964, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the National Forest Management, Hazardous Waste, and Toxic Substances Control Acts in 1976, the Surface Mining Act in 1977, and others.

In 1969 the Congress declared a “national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man” (National Environmental Policy Act). The Reagan Administration has turned its back on that goal, although the great laws Congress passed to fulfill it remain unchanged, and the public support that led to their enactment has not diminished but grown stronger.

We think the Administration’s environmental policies have harmed the Nation, and that the harm grows steadily worse. We believe President Reagan should be called to task.