Don't waive protections.
Leave it to the chronically opportunistic Bush administration and its supporters in Congress to take advantage of a national crisis to further roll back environmental protections.
Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who presides over the Senate environment committee, has drafted a bill that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend any law governing air, water or land in responding to Hurricane Katrina.
This mischievous, unnecessary proposal would allow the administration to bypass laws and regulations not just in the hardest hit states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but also in "any affected state." Presumably, that includes at least all 41 states where Bush has declared disaster areas as a result of the storm - and possibly more. (What state, including Oregon, couldn't claim that its gas prices aren't affected?)
Make no mistake, a few environmental laws will have to be suspended in Katrina's aftermath. The EPA and state governments already have eased some clean air regulations to allow the burning of debris, suspended clean fuel requirements to help control skyrocketing gas prices and waived clean water protections to allow the pumping of polluted floodwaters from flooded New Orleans.
For the most part, these suspensions have been necessary and narrowly targeted to meet specific emergencies. But Inhofe's proposal would allow wholesale waivers of environmental standards across most of the nation over a 120-day period, which the EPA's administrator could extend up to 18 months.
Such sweeping authority is unnecessary. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson recently told senators in a closed-door session that environmental laws were not hindering his agency's ability to clean up the mess caused by the hurricane. After Inhofe introduced his bill, however, EPA officials changed their stance and declared that Inhofe's proposal was essential to the recovery effort.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are trying to build public support for dismantling environmental regulations in the Gulf Coast region - and reassign responsibility for the federal government's botched response to Katrina - by blaming environmental groups for the damage caused by the storm.
At the request of Inhofe's committee, the Justice Department recently began investigating whether legal challenges by environmentalists obstructed improvements to levees in southeast Louisiana. Last week, Justice officials sent e-mails to U.S. attorney's offices throughout the Gulf Coast region asking for information on cases involving "environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede the Corps' work on the levees protecting New Orleans."
Here's what the gumshoes from Justice will discover: Environmentalists filed a legal challenge nearly a decade ago not to actual levee improvements, but to an Army Corps of Engineers' plan to drain 11,000 acres of wetlands in order to obtain construction materials. The levees in question were not the ones that were breached in the city's flooding but were located more than 100 miles from New Orleans. Ultimately, the project was delayed not because of litigation, but because of a lack of funding allocated by Congress.
Instead of engaging in the same "blame game" they accuse Democrats of playing - and instead of seeking a blank check to waive environmental laws across the nation - Republicans in Congress and the administration should focus on protecting the public health in the beleaguered Gulf Coast and across the rest of the nation.