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   Friday, January 31, 2003

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Published on Friday, January 31, 2003 by the Los AngelesTimes

War on the Wetlands Is Bush's Latest Environmental Assault
His definition of 'waters' would extend a free hand to industrial polluters.


by Paul Koretz and Joan Hartmann


The Bush administration issues daily communiques on a seemingly
inevitable war with Iraq, but beneath the radar it is engaged in an
assault on the nation's environmental laws. The Kyoto treaty on
global warming, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air
Act, the Endangered Species Act and provisions to protect public
lands have been attacked. An obscure notice in the Jan. 15 Federal
Register listed the latest target, the Clean Water Act.

While President Bush tries to convince the average American of his
commitment to the "no net loss" wetlands policy of his father, his
administration's actions show his real intentions. He is now seeking
a review of how the "waters of the United States" should be defined
under the Clean Water Act, the first step toward limiting the water
bodies subject to federal protections.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 because polluted rivers
were catching fire and because almost half of the wetlands in the
lower 48 states had disappeared. Although the law has not yet fully
accomplished its objective "to restore and maintain the chemical,
physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters," it has
resulted in vast improvements in how we protect our nonnavigable
waterways. Factories have learned to limit their discharges of
pollutants -- often saving money as they limit or recycle waste
products -- and the pace of wetlands loss has slowed.

The tourism, fishing and recreation industries also reap financial
benefits because of clean water and healthy wetlands. People flock to
visit water bodies and to live near them. Much wildlife depends on
wetlands at some point in its life cycle.

The last thing Americans need is to roll back the progress we have
made in the last 30 years.

Bush's excuse for seeking to redefine "waters of the U.S." derives
from a 2001 decision by a sharply divided Supreme Court, which struck
down the "migratory bird rule." This decision would restrict the
federal government from regulating "isolated wetlands" whose only
link to interstate commerce is use by migratory birds.

The constitutionality of the Clean Water Act derives from the
authority of Congress to make laws regarding interstate commerce.
Thus, a commercial interest must be at stake for the federal
government to exert its regulatory powers over water bodies.

Although the court has generally set a low threshold for meeting the
commerce test, the ruling erected a higher threshold in the wetlands
context, holding that migratory bird use fails to meet the test. This
has given the Bush administration the ammunition needed to slowly
dismantle the Clean Water Act by preparing to restrict the number of
wetlands entitled to protection. Without protection, polluters would
be able to discharge wastes into California's water bodies without
fear of federal interference.

Polls have consistently shown that Americans overwhelmingly support
the Clean Water Act. But while attention is riveted on the prospect
of war with Iraq, the administration is waging guerrilla operations
against the environment by systematically dismantling the critical
provisions of the nation's decades-old, bipartisan environmental
policy.

This war is well underway and there will be many casualties. Is
anyone paying attention?

Paul Koretz is a Democratic state assemblyman representing the 42nd
District, which includes West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and part of
Los Angeles. Joan Hartmann, an adjunct professor with the
environmental studies program at USC, is on the assemblyman's
environmental advisory committee.