Friday, October 15, 2004

For the environment, ?Backward march!?

For as long as they?ve been presiding from their command center in the White House, Vice President Cheney and President Bush have taken pains to assure Americans that the nation?s air and water quality and the environment in general are safe in their hands.

But like so many other promises of this presidency, environmental protection is shrouded in doublespeak and virtually non-existent.

Consider the vice president?s candor this week while meeting with newspaper executives at Wyoming?s Casper Star-Tribune: he admitted as many as 20 coal-fired polluting electric generating plants would have had to be closed by the year 2020 if the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol to prevent global warming.

So, while impressing newspaper folks with efforts to protect jobs by winking at air pollution of dirty smokestack plants, the unthinking Cheney effectively conceded that no effort is made to enforce clean air standards on egregious violators nor does the White House even care.

But even as Cheney spoke in Wyoming, the White House and Energy department were playing more Russian roulette with environmental safety: the Republican House and Senate obediently fathered a slick dodge to allow radioactive waste to remain in tanks in Idaho and South Carolina and not be sent to deep burial.

This special legislation frees the Energy department from a July ruling of Federal Judge Lynn Winmill in Boise, who rejected the Energy department?s attempt to redefine nuclear waste as merely harmless and to thus avoid complying with existing law.

Not unlike the dismissive contempt for other environmental concerns, the Energy department shrugs off fears that unburied radioactive sludge in tanks at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Washington State?s Hanford Site and the South Carolina Savannah River are threats to public safety.

Not so, responds physicist Brice Smith, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Since 1991, Smith and his colleagues have challenged the assumption that pumping grout into the tanks can contain the nuclear waste sludge.

Smith says that the waste sludge generates heat, which can cause cracks in the grout through which nuclear waste could leak into local drinking water supplies.

A veritable drip-drip would pollute water above allowable standards.

That might take years.

So, rather than come down on the side of caution, once again the Bush-Cheney attitude is to accommodate friends in industry and relieve them of the inconvenience of protecting the environment.

But future generations could suffer consequences of nuclear waste leaks that could?ve been prevented today by complying with the original plans to bury the tanks.

Nothing new there: Future generations of Americans already face awesome burdens of a war, of deficits and debt and an increasingly anti-American community of nations that this president and vice president have bequeathed to them.

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