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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Capitol Hill Update

Air Date: Week of

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The recent terrorist attacks may have altered the agenda in Washington, D.C. but environmental politics and policies continue to develop. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood on what’s happened below the radar since September 11th.


CURWOOD: It may seem like the planet came to a halt on September 11th, but environmental problems haven't gone away, and neither has the search for solutions.

Here to play catch-up is our Washington correspondent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. Hi, Anna.


CURWOOD: Anna, tell us what's happened on the policy front while our attention's been on the crisis.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Steve, some of the most interesting developments have been happening, actually, over at the White House. Before September 11th, of course, the President was getting a pretty harsh response from the public on his action -- or lack of actions-- on environmental issues. But, over the last few weeks, a few things seem to be pushing the administration in a greener direction. One example that's so striking because it came out on the 11th and, of course, was immediately eclipsed by terrorist attacks: The National Academy of Sciences came out with its report on arsenic in drinking water. This was the report the Bush administration requested when it decided to review the standard that was put in place by Clinton last year. The results are pretty remarkable. The Academy has found that risks posed by arsenic in drinking water are actually far greater than anyone had previously estimated.

p>CURWOOD: So what will this mean in terms of the Clinton standards being upheld?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it does seem like would be difficult to argue against them now. And the EPA has even given indications that it might make them tougher. But if you talk to environmentalists and Congressional staffers who've been working on this, by no means are they resting easy yet. There's still a long way to go before the final rule in February. And, of course, industry groups aren't giving up on this either. They're going to Congress; they're disputing the science of the Academy's report. So, for anything certain we're probably going to have to wait until February.

CURWOOD: Tell us about the Farm Bill that's due to be re-authorized next year. Last summer we were talking about action in Congress and I understand the administration has started to make its perspective known.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's right. A couple weeks ago, Ann Veneman, the agriculture secretary, released a policy report. And it was real departure from the direction that farm policy's been going in for decades. In some ways, it read like an endorsement of almost everything that conservation groups have been looking for.

CURWOOD: So, how will the secretary's report influence the debate that's going on in Congress?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, we're starting to see that start to play out. The agriculture department is in a pretty difficult position here because they've ended up in direct conflict with House Republicans who've rejected a major increase in conservation money. They've been working on a much more traditional farm bill. Secretary Veneman even issued a statement this week telling House leaders it was not the right time to consider the farm bill. She's concerned, she says, not only about the price tag, but also because the Republicans' bill would only increase subsidies; it would exacerbate overproduction. So, the administration is pushing for an approach to put more money into conservation.

CURWOOD: Anna, before September 11, there was a whole list of other issues that you were following in Washington. Have they just simply gone away?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it's a good question. And probably, the quick answer is no, not permanently. But, yes, in short term, so much of the agenda has definitely been put aside. There's a lot that's not happening right now. You remember the multi-pollutant plan the EPA said it would finish in September. Well, now it's saying it will probably be some time this fall. And then, there was the ongoing investigation by the General Accounting Office into Vice-President Cheney's Energy Task Force, and whether it was unfairly weighted with industry groups. Cheney was refusing to hand over some key documents and the GAO was supposed to decide whether or not to take him to court. But, as you can imagine, this has not been a time for picking on vice-presidents. And, for now, the GAO's saying simply that the Cheney case is just not a priority.

Another issue is climate change. The next international summit on global warming is set to take place at the end of this month in Marrakech. And Congress has put a lot of pressure on the Bush administration to bring some kind of global warming strategy to that meeting. But I've talked to folks in the administration...I would be very surprised if they brought anything more than maybe some general ideas to the table.

CURWOOD: So, where are the environmental lobbyists in all this? How are they dealing with the lawmakers on the hill, and the public that's pretty much consumed right now with national security?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, ever since September 11th I think it's been a real balancing act for them. They're dealing with how to walk this fine line between being critical of policy and being critical of people. Initially, they just laid real low. They postponed direct mailings, their ad campaigns, but now they're trying, like everyone else, to regain momentum. They see the kind of political peace that settled over Capitol Hill right after the attacks has already started to fade. They're seeing lawmakers using the attacks to push for drilling in ANWR. There's also a big push on to move fast on new trade legislation right now. And these things are being talked up as pro-American, good-for-the-economy, anti-terrorist, which means it's going to be harder than ever to fight on environmental grounds.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is our Washington correspondent. Thanks, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome.



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