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The Fine Print on the Contract With America : Environment: The new Congress is set to roll back laws protecting forests and streams and controlling oil drilling.

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They’ve arrived, the 104th Congress, and the mandate is clear. Balance the budget, enact term limits, reform welfare and gut our environmental laws.

What’s that? You don’t remember the environment being such a big issue during the campaign? You don’t think the voters intended to dismantle our environmental laws? Think again. Then read the new congressional majority’s manifesto, the “contract with America,” closely.

The contract was heralded as “protecting our kids,” “job creation and wage enhancement” and “common-sense legal reform.” Who could argue with that? Then there’s the actual legislative language, hundreds of pages long. The word environment never appears. But for starters, the contract would roll back protections against toxins in the drinking water, un

dermine controls on strip-mining and allow more carcinogens in our food. Consider just a few key provisions:

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* Under the guise of less government, an avalanche of new rules would be created, bringing action to protect health and the environment to a halt. For example, nearly two dozen new acts of “regulatory impact assessments” would be required before any environmental rule could be issued.

* New “peer review panels” of “outside experts” would be established, dominated by the industries being regulated and endowed with veto authority over any government action, from cleaning up toxic waste to regulating air pollution to prohibiting dangerous pesticides. This so-called reform would cede enormous power to polluters.

* Taxpayers would be required to reimburse everyone claiming that environmental laws reduce the value of their property, with “property” defined so broadly that it could include such “rights” as to mine or drill for oil on public lands. Given the scarcity of public funds, this sweeping and unprecedented mandate would effectively end such environmental protections as safeguarding our coasts against development, reclaiming strip-mined land and protecting endangered species.

Moreover, contract or no, many newly elected members of Congress are eager to roll back several of the nation’s principal environmental laws, all up for reauthorization. They include laws enacted to preserve our lakes and rivers, ensure safe food and drinking water and protect our remaining national forests. Calls are already being heard to “privatize” the national parks, open Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling and repeal the Superfund law controlling toxic waste.

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Even more ominous is the new leadership of congressional committees with jurisdiction over most environmental and public health statutes. The new chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, with jurisdiction over public lands, is Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), champion of previously unsuccessful efforts to promote oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His counterpart at the House Natural Resources Committee is Don Young, (R-Alaska), an ally of oil and timber interests. Then there’s the darling of the tobacco industry, Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.), who’s in charge of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His voting record received a near-zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

The environmental proposals now before Congress are not intended to make life better for most Americans. They are not intended to make government work or improve our quality of life. Instead, they would allow economic interests to run roughshod over the environment--a polluters’ bill of rights increasing the profits of the few at the expense of the many. Read the contract. And then fight it.


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