Protection on the Cheap

Sunday, 01 June 2003 07:35 by: Anonymous

Editorial | Protection on the Cheap
New York Times

Saturday 31 May 2003

President Bush's budgets have generally shortchanged environmental programs. His proposed budget for all discretionary (nonfarm) environmental protection programs for fiscal 2004 is down $1.6 billion, or 5 percent, from actual spending in 2002. These numbers do not really register, however, until you suddenly wake up to the fact that for want of a few million strategically placed dollars, programs essential to the government's ability to carry out important environmental laws have been compromised. There have been two distressing examples of this in the last week alone.

The first involves the system the Environmental Protection Agency uses to enforce Clean Water Act limits on pollution from factories, municipal water-treatment systems and the like. The system compares each site's actual monthly discharges against its allowable maximums, and the ones that exceed their limits are subject to fines.

Laudably, the administration has tried to replace a creaky manual system of reporting with computers that transmit data quickly to federal authorities. But the new system is full of bugs. Until they are eliminated, which could take three years, factories and plants will be able to discharge pollutants undetected. The agency says it simply does not have the $14 million required to fix things and needs new money from Congress. That reflects not just bad planning but indifference at the Office of Management and Budget to clear environmental needs.

Meanwhile, Interior Department officials announced this week that they had almost run out of the money needed to satisfy two basic obligations under the Endangered Species Act: identifying and listing new species that deserve protection, and designating "critical habitat" for each species' recovery. Echoing complaints from previous administrations, the department says the habitat requirement is not only expensive but unnecessary because listing a species as threatened or endangered confers as high level of protection to begin with. Still, habitat designation is required by law, and until Congress changes that law, the department should have the wherewithal to carry it out.

The department obviously needs more than the miserly $12 million budgeted for listing and habitat designation. The issue here, as with water pollution, is whether 30-year-old programs that command broad public support can do more than simply limp along. When the time comes to appropriate money for these programs, Congress should make sure they not only survive but also flourish.


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