11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Speed Readers on Steroids

The struggle between public servants in environmental agencies and the political servants of polluters in the White House continues. In writing about EPA Administrator Johnson's courageous decision to set a tough new lead standard, I pointed out that there had to have been ferocious pressures from Gang Cheney -- and boy was I right. We now learn that while the technical standard withstood this pressure, the monitoring program was dramatically weakened at the last minute. On the final day, the White House jumped in and rewrote the standard so that half of the lead emissions in the country wouldn't be monitored.  In this case, we don't need to speculate about whether the decision was made by Administrator Johnson; we know it was the Office of Management and Budget that insisted on the change.

But if there is hand-to-hand combat at EPA, it's rollover time at the Department of the Interior. Confronted by a November 1 deadline for new regulations, and deluged by 200,000 public comments protesting its proposed regulation to make the safeguards of the Endangered Species Act voluntary for federal agencies, the Department of Interior summoned 15 staffers to D.C. and gave them 32 hours to read, absorb, and understand the tsunami of public concerns. That means that each staffer, assuming they take no coffee or bathroom breaks had to digest 417 comments every hour -- one comment every nine seconds.

Speed reading experts say that the world's fastest readers can manage only 2,000 words a minute (with just 50 percent comprehension).  Assuming that the Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 15 world-champion speed readers on its staff, they'll be able to read about 250 words of each submission -- some of which are from scientists and are hundreds of pages long. And, even then, their comprehension will be only 50 percent. (So, for example, of every four comments, the staff can be expected to misclassify at least one, and probably two.)

It's difficult to imagine the job facing the Justice Department lawyer who has to defend this with a straight face as a reasonable exercise in taking public comments into account.

Meanwhile, the Administration has privately signaled that they might not take the November 1 deadline so seriously after all -- they simply haven't done all the damage they want to the fabric of law. So we won't be able to relax -- and even if no new regulations emerge, there is still tremendous capacity to undermine our national wild legacy with the reckless leasing of public lands.

For example, Friday was the closing date for public comment on a sneak move to abolish the right of Congress to block mining proposals in sensitive public lands -- the purpose of this repeal is to reopen the Grand Canyon ecosystem to uranium mining, after the House Resources Committee ordered it protected back in June. The Interior Department ignored the order and has been issuing leases as fast as it can -- and now it's going to try to get rid of the restraint altogether. The Department's justification -- "Rules need to be followed before any mining is done." Of course, if you repeal the rules, they don't need to be followed.

Another example: Just this morning we found out that the Administration is moving to have the EPA adopt rules that would loosen pollution controls on power plants by judging them on their hourly rate of emissions rather than their total annual output -- and it's doing so over the objections of every career and political official in the agency. The idea is to make it easier for older power plants to increase their overall emissions without having to invest in new equipment to reduce pollution.