EPA Contemplates Measure Suspending Rules

A draft order circulating at the Environmental Protection Agency would give the EPA administration power to waive environmental rules in the aftermath of any "act of God." Environmentalists are worried about possible wideranging impact.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In this portion of the program, some of the proposals on the table in Washington after Hurricane Katrina. In a few minutes we'll consider some of the ideas President Bush laid out in his address from New Orleans last night. First, news that the administration and some members of Congress are looking at ways to provide sweeping authority to waive environmental laws. The congressional proposal would apply specifically to Hurricane Katrina and would last for three months. The administration's version would be much broader. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has read some of the documents.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

One draft proposal circulating in the Environmental Protection Agency would give the administrator authority to exempt anyone from a range of environmental laws and rules in emergency situations. The administrator would decide if a situation counts as an emergency. It could include any act of God or unavoidable event. It wouldn't be limited to a state of emergency declared by the president or a governor. The document explains that the new power is necessary because current environmental laws could hamper speedy relief and reconstruction.

The documents were provided to NPR by EPA officials who are concerned that the proposal could put too much authority in the hands of one person who would be under intense pressure to relax environmental protections. The officials also are worried that almost any accident could trigger these waivers and erase environmental protections. The documents are about pollution laws overseen by one office of the EPA, but staff members from that office and others say they are part of a broader Bush administration plan to seek authority to waive a wide range of environmental laws. The officials spoke on the condition that they not be named because they fear retribution.

The EPA already has waived environmental rules because of Katrina. It did so to allow polluted floodwaters to be pumped into Lake Pontchartrain and to permit the sale of dirtier diesel fuel in some areas to ease a fuel shortage caused by the hurricane. But the broad proposal under consideration would need congressional approval. Michelle St. Martin of the White House Office of Environmental Quality says she can't comment on any efforts not related to Katrina, but she did say the administration is working with Congress on environmental exemptions for hurricane relief.

Ms. MICHELLE ST. MARTIN (White House Office of Environmental Quality): The administration is currently reviewing what waivers may be necessary to enable a speedy, safe and complete response to a natural disaster of this magnitude.

SHOGREN: EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher adds that her agency is working on legislation to, quote, "respond to Hurricane Katrina and future natural disasters in an environmentally responsible manner." No EPA officials would go on tape.

Senate Environment Committee James Inhofe is working on similar legislation. A recent draft of his 90-day measure would allow the EPA administrator to waive or alter any requirement in any law to respond quickly to a situation relating to Hurricane Katrina. Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch says advocates of the waivers are using Katrina as a pretext to gut environmental protections.

Mr. FRANK O'DONNELL (Clean Air Watch): The outcome cold mean dirtier air, dirtier water and a lot more public health damage. It really would be an open invitation to big special-interest polluters to come in and seek a break.

SHOGREN: But Senator Inhofe's spokesman, Bill Holbrook, says waivers would enable EPA to move quickly to clean up and rebuild after the hurricane.

Mr. BILL HOLBROOK (Spokesperson for Senator Inhofe): We're working very closely with the administration on legislative remedies and, to me, it's unconscionable that special-interest groups out there would criticize a bill that would facilitate cleanup along the Gulf Coast and would have a beneficial impact on public health.

SHOGREN: Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California says taking away environmental protections would further disadvantage the people who already have suffered so much from Katrina.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): If we need to waive a law temporarily, let's look at the particular law. Let's have a proposal from the administration. Let's debate it and discuss it and move swiftly, but let's not completely walk away from all environmental protection.

SHOGREN: Since Katrina, industry representatives have been asking the government to relax a variety of environmental rules. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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