NO, IT'S NOT AN urban legend. Rats do swim up sewers and toilets. A dozen years ago, I heard splashing in the bathroom, lifted the toilet lid, and saw a small rat practicing breaststroke. When I returned with my camera, the swimmer looked up, spied me, and dived back down the drain.
Something recently brought this aqua-rat back to mind—and I don't just mean the dives taken by Ken Lay and Henry Kozlowski, or the dives that Dick Cheney, Thomas White, and all other crooked crony capitalists should take. It was a piece in last Tuesday's New York Times, describing a plague of rats in ritzy Southern Californian enclaves like Beverly Hills, written with the dark glee known only to New Yorkers celebrating Californian woes. Blame global warming for the influx; the Times credits warm winters for making rats breed and forest fires for making them move.
I did what comes naturally to any self-respecting provincial reporter confronted with a new Californian trend: checked to see if it was happening here. Bill Heaton, who supervises "solid waste and vector nuisance programs" (i.e., rats and, next year, West Nile fever) for Public Health Seattle & King County, doesn't see any such trend: "We're getting the same number of complaints as usual." But that means a lot, including two to four rats swimming up toilets each month.
Back when Ronald Reagan was president, one of Heaton's predecessors told me that Magnolia had the most rats of all Seattle neighborhoods, around seven per human resident. This seemed curious, since Magnolia also had the most Republicans, but it probably had more to do with the prevalence of shorelines and thickets for rats to hide in and dog-food dishes to eat from. Heaton, who knows a loaded question when he hears one, won't say where the rats go now: "They're pretty much everywhere."
Still, he sees a demographic shift: Before, Norway rats—the scruffy basement burrowers, sewer crawlers, and garbage scroungers of Eastern cities—ruled Seattle. But lately, the somewhat mellower roof rats—climbers rather than burrowers, favoring seeds and grains, dominant in California and the tropics—have gotten the edge. Should we credit global warming for this, too? Or the boom in bird feeders, which supply the food roof rats favor and which Heaton says have become the leading local source of rat chow? Or a broader Californian coup? Another California emigr鬠the rosy-headed house finch, is displacing the English sparrows that came here from the East.
Roof, Norway—the rats shall always be with us. Some California suburbs talk of importing sterilized feral cats to eliminate their rats, but Heaton's dubious: "Cats will catch a few of the dumb ones, and probably keep them down so you won't see them. But they won't eliminate rats." As long as we're around, these rodent hitchhikers, superbly fitted to riding our ships, living in our cities, and fattening on our scraps, will be too. It's nice to think some critters have an interest in our surviving on this planet.
STRANGLING ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW
Speaking of overachieving varmints, the Bush administration is attacking a cornerstone of environmental review and public oversight, the National Environmental Policy Act, like a rat pack circling fresh food—from all directions. NEPA, the watchdog's and obstructionist's essential tool, makes agencies disclose the environmental effects of their actions and solicit public comment. Sometimes, this entails costly, time-consuming environmental impact statements. Occasionally, it averts disaster.
One prong of the attack is getting most of the ink, especially here in timber country: the Bush gang's attempt to exempt the logging of 10 million acres, ostensibly for fire prevention, from NEPA standards. But another, less-noted gambit may have deeper impact. In July, the White House Council on Environmental Quality convened a task force with the benign-sounding mission of "improving," "modernizing," and "better coordinating" NEPA processes. Environmental groups concede that NEPA could be better implemented but fear a ploy to gut it. Last week, they got confirmation of the administration's intentions.
The NEPA task force was to take public comment until this week. But the Bushies couldn't even wait and pretend to listen. Last Wednesday, the president issued an executive order "expediting" environmental reviews of "high-priority" transportation projects. The secretary of transportation would have sole authority over the structure and schedule of these reviews, eliminating the role of the EPA, Interior Department, and other agencies charged with protecting the resources affected by new highways and airport expansions. They call it "streamlining"; the National Resources Defense Council, leading the resistance, calls it "steamrollering."
Meanwhile, the military claims sweeping security exemptions from NEPA. And the administration is fighting in court to exempt activities in oceans beyond a three-mile limit. That would mean free rein for offshore drilling and open season on whales from Navy sonar blasts. And if Bush keeps losing on this in court, as he did last Thursday in San Francisco, he can always drop another executive order.
Eric Scigliano's environment column appears every other week.