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The Planet
Love It or Leavitt

Sierra Club opposes Bush pick to head EPA

By Brian Vanneman

Two years ago, Vi and Bill Corkle officially adopted Nine Mile Canyon, a Utah wilderness area known for its striking red walls and one of the greatest concentrations of Native American rock art in the country.

But on a trip to the canyon this spring, Vi saw something she had been dreading. "A stake for a proposed gas drilling site was no further from our picnic table than the length of my house," says the Ogden Group volunteer. "If they go in there and use seismic vibrations to explore deep underground, it can’t help but crack the rock."

In fact, five sites within Nine Mile Canyon have been approved for gas and oil exploration by the administration of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who in September was nominated by President Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Due to his poor track record on wilderness preservation, clean air and water protection, and other issues, and his dangerous stance on states’ rights, the Sierra Club strongly opposes Leavitt’s appointment.

Senator Hillary Clinton has made the unusual move of placing a hold on Leavitt’s nomination, which will prevent the Senate from voting, but not stop committee hearings. Clinton cited the Bush EPA’s attempts to obscure the threat of dangerous air contamination in post-9/11 Manhattan as the reason for the hold, not Leavitt’s politics. Regardless of her intentions, the Club hopes that the hold will allow the Senate more time to review Leavitt’s poor environmental record.

Despite being called a moderate by some newspapers, Leavitt has been a state-level champion for the Bush administration’s nationwide assault on environmental regulations. Earlier this year, Leavitt abandoned negotiations with the Sierra Club and other groups in favor of closed-door talks with Interior Secretary Gayle Norton. The two settled on a plan to open up Utah wilderness areas like Nine Mile Canyon to roadbuilding and development. If energy companies take advantage of this handout, oil drills could be easily visible from Delicate Arch—one of the most photographed national park icons—as well as from many other protected Utah lands.

Leavitt has also been instrumental in advancing RS2477, which resuscitates an archaic 1866 law allowing local governments to develop vast stretches of wilderness. RS2477 would allow counties in Utah—and other states—to identify old wagon roads and cattle trails on archival maps, then build modern roads to be used by power companies, developers, or other industries.

Leavitt often publicizes his principle of "enlibra," which he defines as "in balance," though our Latin scholars translate it as "in scales." In any case, many Utah-based Club members question his commitment to balancing the interests of business with the environment. From their point of view, the scales have been tipped decidedly towards the former.

" He believes in a collaborative process," says Nina Dougherty, the Club’s Air Quality Chair. "But it’s not about taking a broader view—it’s about seeing how far industry can be allowed to go."

Dougherty worked with the Leavitt administration on the Western Regional Air Partnership and on keeping Salt Lake City’s air clean. But Leavitt opposed national legislation to limit soot levels, calling for "sound science" and further investigation, though soot has repeatedly been linked to chronic respiratory problems, asthma, and lung cancer. And while soot is one of the main pollutants released by coal power plants, Leavitt advocates increased coal power production, including two major plant expansions, and the construction of another. From her Salt Lake City home, Dougherty can watch the arms of the Wasatch Mountains trap the haze created by industry and automobiles.

Perhaps even more threatening to citizens nationwide is Leavitt’s advocacy for states’ rights on environmental issues. States’ rights have been used as a tactic to avoid publicly-supported federal environmental legislation. When states compete for industry and one of the bargaining chips is pollution control, more lenient controls are a temptation. And while many environmental problems, like global warming, air and water pollution, have no trouble crossing state lines, state laws do. "The EPA has got to have a strong enforcement role," says Dougherty.

Unfortunately, there are more dark spots on Leavitt’s environmental record. One of his first acts as governor was to fire a Division of Wildlife Resources enforcement official who had fined Leavitt’s family’s fish farm for environmental violations. He later laid off fifty environmental scientists when their protection of vulnerable plant and animal species conflicted with developers’ ambitions. He has been a staunch advocate of building the Legacy Highway, which would threaten the state’s world-renowned wetlands. Emerging from the Leavitt era, Utah was ranked last in the nation in Clean Water Act enforcement.

" Leavitt’s track record suggests that he will be a good fit for the Bush administration," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, "but a disappointing choice for Americans concerned with environmental protection."

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