THE BLOG

Fish Gotta Swim? Not Until January 20

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Bush administration is exiting with three major regulatory assaults on our nation's waterways. Yesterday, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers issued a new guidance document to clarify how many of the nation's waterways will not, for Clean Water Act purposes, be protected. In doing so, they broke the promise that Bush made to hunting and angling groups during his 2004 reelection campaign that he would continue to apply the Clean Water Act to vitally important wetlands and headwaters streams.

The day before, the Administration approved new rules that would legalize the practice of dumping mining waste from coal mining into streams, eliminating the current, modest requirement of a 100-foot buffer zone. EPA Administrator Steve Johnson signed off on this proposal with the Orwellian comment that "Americans should not have to choose between clean coal or effective environmental protection; we can achieve both."

Now if Johnson actually believed that clean coal is clean, he would never have made this statement -- clean coal would automatically be part of environmental protection. But Johnson obviously knows better. Indeed, he let the cat out of the bag: If dumping mountaintops into streams is "clean coal," then it's hard to imagine what we are supposed to imagine is meant by "dirty coal."

This rule is so bad that the governors of two of the most-affected states, Kentucky's Steven Beshear and Tennessee's Phil Bredesen, opposed it, Beshear saying it would increase pollution of Kentucky's "beautiful natural resources."

But coal isn't the only industry that got carte blanche exemptions from the Clean Water Act. Factory feedlots will also benefit from a last-minute Bush rule -- 15,000 of them would be issued a get-out-jail-free pass saying they don't have to comply with the Clean Water Act as long as they promise they won't pollute. Collectively, these feedlots produce 500 million tons of animal manure each year -- about 3,500 pounds of s---t for every man, woman, and child in America.

The EPA assures the public that this rule will actually, somehow, reduce pollution by several billion pounds of sediment a year. Since this would be possible only if the facilities were already polluting our waterways by more than that, and since the EPA has always insisted that there was, really, no pollution problem from feedlots at all, the logic appears (I say "appears" because it's all pretty weird) to run like this: Some feedlots will admit they are polluting -- although it's not clear why -- and they will be required to pollute less than they currently do. We then won't need to worry about the overwhelming majority who will (I'd place a large bet) claim that they aren't going to pollute.

Follow that? This is actually worse than asking someone whether they've stopped beating their wife. It's like saying, "As long as you promise you won't, you legally can."

British writer George Monbiot summed up the logic of this and similar parting salvoes of the Bush administration's final days in his usual acerbic style, writing that "George Bush is behaving like a furious defaulter whose home is about to be repossessed. Smashing the porcelain, ripping the doors off their hinges, he is determined that there will be nothing worth owning by the time the bastards kick him out."

Monbiot is right about the underlying instinct behind these rules -- but he's wrong about how much harm Bush can irrevocably do in the next few weeks. In addition to the ability to suspend the worst of these regulations through the Congressional Review Act, the courts will almost certainly find many of them illegal, and the new Administration can undo the remainder through various combinations of executive action. It's leases, not regulations, that create the truly irreversible damage. America's waters are under assault for a few more weeks, but to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt's campaign song ("Happy Days Are Here Again"), clearer streams are near again.