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Congress's Sneak Attack

image of Bob Keefe

Congress is in the middle of one of the worst assaults on the environment and public health in recent history. Not that you would know it, based on how little coverage these attacks receive in your local newspaper or on the TV news. Here are two examples of particularly egregious legislation you might have missed: 

■ H.R. 2018, which already passed the House, would allow states to sidestep federal Clean Water Act pollution standards like those that brought Lake Erie's dead zones back to life and kept Ohio's Cuyahoga River from catching fire again.

■ H.R. 2401, the so-called TRAIN Act, would practically gut the Clean Air Act. The pending legislation would delay Environmental Protection Agency air-quality standards that would prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths as well as hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks every year. It would create yet another government committee to review a laundry list of long-overdue standards to limit the emission of toxic chemicals and other waste from power plants, coal mines, and industrial boilers.

And then there is the budget cutting. Along with making drastic cuts in funding for parks and environmental protections, House Republicans, when they return to Washington in September, are expected to resurrect and attach dozens of anti-environmental legislative "riders" to spending bills. These riders would do everything from allow coal mines to dump more debris into our rivers to end protections for endangered species like wolves.

That's just a partial list. Almost every day Congress is in session seems to bring another nasty surprise. Most have come from representatives who are scared of a Tea Party backlash if they don't vote against anything that smacks of government involvement -- though this is what our government is supposed to do: protect the public.

Like the Interior/EPA riders, many of these environmental attacks have been snuck into spending bills or other legislation to avoid attention or scrutiny. As former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt recently remarked, proponents of these laws are pushing them through "in the shadows, outside the sunshine generated by public knowledge."

This shadowy assault on the environment is taking place at the same time that our primary government watchdog -- the media -- is being decimated. Not long ago almost every major news organization kept one or more environmental reporters on its payroll. Many were based in Washington. Today, financially strapped news organizations can afford only scant, passing coverage of environmental policy (environmental disasters -- oil spills, droughts, and floods -- are another matter). Many newspapers have no reporters in Washington anymore, much less any devoted to these issues. Even among the remaining environmental reporters in Washington and elsewhere, "we've seen a lot of people shifted from having just the environmental beat to being more general assignment–type reporters," says Carolyn Whetzel, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

This means that, more than ever, it's the job of citizens to make sure that members of Congress know we're still watching them. Our elected officials should hear from us when they vote for legislation that damages the environment, diminishes our air and water quality, or perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels. We should also let our local news organizations know we want more environmental news coverage, not less. And we need to seek out other credible sources of information. One recommendation: switchboard.nrdc.org, which includes blogs from NRDC's Washington-based policy and governmental affairs experts.

The current Congress has shown where it stands on protecting the environment and public health. But in today's media climate, its actions are too easy to miss. That must change, or else we'll all suffer the consequences of our collective ignorance.

image of Bob Keefe
Bob Keefe spent more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, covering everything from technology in California to business in Texas to politics in Washington, including as the D.C. correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is n... READ MORE >