A fox to guard the birds?

Opinion

President Bush has nominated Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt to replace Christine Whitman as EPA director.

Whitman, a “moderate” Republican, came into office having demonstrated a concern for the environment. She was often at odds with the White House over environmental policy, starting with Bush’s abrupt decision to unilaterally declare the Kyoto Protocol to prevent global warming “dead.” The Bush administration, prone to making shady deals at the expense of a safe and healthy environment, routinely undermined Whitman.

She was never given the power to do the job of cracking down on polluters and protecting our families and communities, and resigned out of frustration in May of this year.

Like his predecessor, Leavitt is in the “moderate” wing of the GOP. The governor’s website gives the impression that his heart is in the right place – the site is soggy with platitudes about the need for balance and stewardship of our land, air, and water. Unfortunately, his head seems to be lost in Market Solutions La-La Land. Leavitt, like many in the GOP, would like you to believe that the “invisible hand” of the market will solve most of our problems if government just keeps its hands off.

Given Leavitt’s pro-market bias, it’s no surprise that environmental enforcement in Utah is weak under his administration.One of Leavitt’s recurring themes is that we need to shift power from the federal government down to state, county, and municipal governments — and ease the regulatory burden on “the people” (read “business”).

Indeed, government should be accessible to the people. The trouble is, many corporations have become more powerful than the government entities designed to regulate them. How can a county or municipal government hope to stand up to a transnational corporation that is ready to bring the full force of the WTO and NAFTA against it?

“Market-based solutions” are what got us into trouble with the environment to begin with. That’s why fisheries are collapsing and whales are on the edge of extinction. The free market makes profit the top priority and our environment a free pollution dump. Environmental costs aren’t factored in. Natural resources are looted at the expense of the common good. That’s why government has to step in. The free market is a lousy regulator. It allows a few people to get rich, at the cost of long-term damage.

Incidentally, the market approach is a dog that can come back and bite you, as Leavitt found in Utah. Twice a year, companies that sell hiking, camping, and other equipment to outdoor enthusiasts and retailers gather at Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace for a huge bazaar called the Outdoor Retailer Show. Each show attracts 15,000 to 18,000 people and at least $24 million in “direct visitor spending” to the city. But the Outdoor Industry Association threatens to find another location for its gathering unless Leavitt backs away from his plan to weaken wilderness protection.

On Leavitt’s website, you’ll see some unsubstantiated boogey-man stories about the evils of environmental enforcement. One example: he belittles the Endangered Species Act with a hypothetical situation of an unnamed small town that needs to improve its water system and is “forced to pay an additional $10 million because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks that a small fish species is endangered.” What Leavitt doesn’t explain is how free market approaches would save a species from going extinct. Extinction is pretty serious business: we’re talking about gone forever.

Philip Clapp, head of the National Environmental Trust, said, “I can’t think of too many governors more hostile to government regulations than Mike Leavitt.”

The Sierra Club opposes Leavitt’s nomination, saying his environmental track record “includes working behind closed doors with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to open up millions of acres of Utah’s wildlands to development and polluting industries.”

Lawson Legate, the Sierra Club’s southwest regional director, who lives in Salt Lake City, says Leavitt has pushed construction of the “Legacy Highway” which would run through the Great Salt Lake wetlands — a significant shore bird reserve – and would destroy some of the state’s best remaining farmland. “We don’t need this freeway,” he told Pacifica Radio’s Amy Goodman.

If Leavitt is confirmed as EPA director, the question becomes: How long will he last if he sticks up for the environment? If he’s a reactionary disguised as a moderate, then he will fit in comfortably with the Bush league in his tenure at the EPA. This will be another test case for an administration that, so far, is failing on both the environmental and labor fronts.



David Zink is a trade unionist and environmental activist in Washington state. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.