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September 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet
Toxic Riders Threaten Drinking Water, Democracy

by Nicholas L. Cain

How would you like less arsenic in your drinking water?

A 1999 National Academy of Sciences report found that the current arsenic standard is unsafe and should be revised "as promptly as possible." Independent arsenic experts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree.

Based on this information, any sane person would want to reduce the amount of arsenic in our drinking water. But on June 21, Congress did the exact opposite: The House voted against clean drinking water by blocking enforcement of the EPA's new standard for arsenic. And Congress made this important decision without public debate or discussion by using an under-handed legislative trick: anti-environmental appropriations riders.

A "rider" is an amendment, usually unrelated to the issue at hand, that is tacked onto a piece of legislation. Most anti-environmental riders would not withstand public scrutiny, so legislators bury them in must-pass spending bills. After the public flogging lawmakers endured over their misuse of riders last year, you might be tempted to think that Congress had gotten the message: Americans overwhelmingly support environmental protections and want them strengthened. But as we face another slew of budget bills loaded with toxic riders, it's obvious that some representatives have turned a blind eye to the concerns of Americans.

For politicians who want to undermine environmental protections without too many eyes watching, riders provide the perfect means. "The most dangerous aspect of anti-environmental appropriations riders," said Debbie Sease, the Sierra Club's legislative director, "is that major changes in environmental laws are made without public debate, under the cover of dark."

And Sease is not exaggerating. Several weeks ago, Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) actually waited until midnight to get his rider in. Nethercutt initially tried to insert a rider to derail the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Plan - a program to coordinate the protection of watersheds and wildlands in the Columbia Basin - in the daylight hours. The House voted by a sizable margin to toss this rider out and then blocked its reintroduction. Instead of heeding the votes, Nethercutt just waited.

As the highly technical appropriations process dragged on into the night, representatives started to leave. Around midnight, after many had left, Nethercutt successfully re-introduced his measure. As of our publication date, it's still there.

And Nethercutt's rider is hardly the worst of this year's bunch.

A rider inserted in the Interior appropriations bill will block funding for federal efforts to combat global warming.

Another rider recently introduced would halt the EPA's clean-up of the Hudson River until an additional report has been completed - delaying badly needed restoration efforts.

As they did last year, Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced a rider that will undermine revised limits on how much waste can be dumped by mines.

A rider inserted in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) would block efforts to reform the Army Corps of Engineers and, in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution, abolish civilian control of the agency.

Other riders seek to undermine the Endangered Species Act, delay forest planning and stymie needed wilderness inventories.

But despite this long list of dangerous amendments, there is a potent antidote on-hand - public scrutiny. Last year, a national outcry eliminated some of the worst riders. Over the summer - and in November - we need to send an even stronger message: Riders are wrong and those who vote against the environment do so at their own risk.

To Take Action: Contact your senators and representatives to let them know that you want them to protect our environment, not trash it. Also let them know that you disapprove of the use of riders to make changes in policy and that you are watching their votes carefully.

Write U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510 and U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515.

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