Bush’s environmental record is a far cry from media portrayals

Published October 1, 2001

It is very subtle, but it is persistent. Listen to the language used by the media to describe President George W. Bush’s approach to environmental issues. The language speaks volumes.

As the President embarked on a late-summer vacation, media pundits were scrambling to summarize his first seven months in office. With Bush scoring well with the general public on a number of issues, the media honed in on his environmental record. Among the terms thrown around most often: Bush had been “digging in his heels” on the environment, “pleasing his most conservative constituents” on environmental issues, and “rolling back eight years of environmental progress.”

That is what the mainstream press would have us believe . . . but is it true? It doesn’t take a very long look at the administration’s record to see the absurdity of Big Media claims.

Last-minute tipoff

To begin with, Bush faced a rash of regulations and new proposals put forward by former President Bill Clinton literally in the last days of his Presidency. The very nature of last-minute declarations speaks volumes about the substance of the proposals.

Why would somebody wait until the very moment he is being shown to the door to toss out a bevy of new government programs? It’s not like the whole body of respected environmental scientists suddenly and coincidentally announced the results of comprehensive, groundbreaking environmental studies in the month or so between the 2000 Presidential election and the January 2001 inauguration.

Clinton’s proposals were made at the last minute because they were too controversial, costly, or devoid of sound science to justify the President staking his own political capital on them. Each of these proposals was sufficiently divisive to alert the President he could not put together a coalition of solid Democrats, with just a few necessary Republicans, to gain passage of his proposals. By no stretch could the proposals be termed bipartisan or even “moderate.”

Arsenic and science

For the past 60 years, the federal government has designated 50 parts per billion (ppb) as a safe level of arsenic in human drinking water. Scientific studies had never questioned the 50 ppb standard. A 1999 National Academy of Sciences study concluded extremely high arsenic levels (above the 50 ppb threshold) might harm human health, but the evidence did not demonstrate any harm below 50 ppb. Clinton sat on this report for more than a year before proposing a 10 ppb standard on his last day in office.

With cost estimates of several billion dollars to provide the equipment to meet the proposed standard, and with these costs disproportionately borne by small, western communities who cannot afford the necessary equipment, the Bush administration announced it would temporarily delay implementing the new standard while it awaited results of new studies addressing lower arsenic levels. In the meantime, the administration sought public comment on a 20 ppb standard (a full 60 percent reduction from the prior standard), indicating an intent to drastically reduce the existing standard, if not quite to the same level of the Clinton reductions. For this, the media gave Bush one of the biggest black eyes of his administration.

Playing with PCBs

In New York’s Upper Hudson River Valley, General Electric deposited PCBs in the Hudson River for decades before evidence suggested extremely high PCB doses could be harmful to humans. PCBs were banned in 1977, and studies have shown that persons in the Upper Hudson River Valley never were exposed to sufficient levels of PCBs to do them any harm. In the 24 years since GE stopped depositing PCBs in the Hudson River, more than 90 percent of the chemicals have been washed away, and the remaining 10 percent are largely entombed beneath several layers of clean river sediment.

Acknowledging the overall health of the river, the Clinton EPA permitted such activities as swimming, wading, and recreational fishing in the Hudson. Indeed, the agency even approved the Hudson as safe source of human drinking water.

For 7 years and 11 months of the Clinton Presidency, the Hudson was just fine with the people in the Clinton EPA. Even so, President Clinton in his final days in office proposed massive dredging of nearly 40 miles of river bottom to remove the small amounts of remaining entombed sediment. The new proposal would become the largest and most expensive EPA Superfund site in the nation.

Science has clearly absolved the Hudson River of any harmful effects of the few remaining PCBs. Moreover, local residents–the ones who live with the river on an everyday basis and can best decide whether or not they need to be “protected”–overwhelmingly oppose the proposed dredging. Despite all this, the Bush EPA has decided to enforce the last-minute Clinton initiative.

Land Grab Act

Beyond the last-minute Clinton proposals, the new President has puzzled observers and pleased anti-market environmentalists by backing the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the “Land Grab Act.” Taking a page out of Environmental Socialism 101, the President threw his wholehearted support behind a bill that would enable the federal government to use taxpayer money to condemn and purchase private land in the name of environmental conservation.

Evidently, Bush failed to realize the federal government already owns more than 42 percent of the nation’s land, including a majority of the land in the western U.S. The government does a remarkably poor job managing the land it already owns. In the words of R.J. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Where is the pressing need for additional land acquisition? How much is enough?”


When the Bush administration decides to act like the Clinton administration, this hardly registers a blip in the mainstream media’s coverage of the Bush environmental record. When the administration makes a different decision, the media coverage is a circus.

While Bush has not embraced every item proposed by the extreme anti-market wing of American environmentalists, he has in many cases strode boldly where few level-headed environmentalists have strode before. For this, he deserves some scrutiny, but certainly not for the reasons asserted by the national media.