TO GET AN IDEA of just how wretched a job newly nominated Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt would do if confirmed as President Bush's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, forget about Leavitt's horrible record on Utah wilderness. Go to Salt Lake City.
I did, in May. And entering the Salt Lake Valley from the south on Interstate 15, what I saw made me sick to my stomach. Rounding the curve at the head of the pass separating the valley from towns to the south, the view was reminiscent of those antismoking commercials that show what cigarette use does to your lungs. With the Wasatch Mountains to the east and both mountains and the Great Salt Lake to the west, the Salt Lake Valley is one of the most spectacular urban settings in the country. But on this day, I would be descending into and breathing a sea of yellow-brown glop, the sort of toxic stew that once plagued residents of Denver and Los Angeles. The once- beautiful valley was an urban wasteland.
THE SAME FACTORS that once made Denver's air so bad are prevalent in Salt Lake City: a booming, car-dependent metropolis, a dry climate, a valley prone to air inversions, and an elevation almost as high as that of the Mile High City. The Salt Lake area has far more pollution than 25 years ago because, like Seattle, it has a lot more people and many more cars.
But its smog is also much worse because for more than a decade, Utah has had one of the most pro-business, antiregulatory governors in the country. Who is now poised to become the person in charge of enforcing the entire country's environmental laws.
While George W. heads our way for some carefully contrived green-washing photo opsoh, and to raise huge sums of campaign greenery from our region's worst pollutersthe scuttlebutt in D.C. is that Bush and his hard-line advisers didn't want another "moderate" to replace the previous EPA head, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. They wanted one of their own, a Westerner like Bush and Cheney and Interior Secretary Gail Norton, someone who'd share their antipathy not only to new legislation but to enforcing environmental laws already on the books. Repeatedly, the White House undercut or overrode Whitman's policies and pronouncements. And this while Whitman herself compiled a record most environmentalists considered awful.
Watchdogs like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have for the past 30 months been revealing one horror story after another of environmental law being compromised by Bush appointees eager to please their former colleagues (or employers) in one or another environmentally damaging industry. Leavitt promises to take to a new level Bush's open contempt for the law and for the nation's consistent desire for environmental protection and restoration. Leavitt was notorious for not even inviting environmental experts or advocates to be involved in state-industry negotiations over environmental policy. His Bush-pleasing r鳵m頩ncludes, among many other things, refusing to lift a finger in the case of U.S. Magnesium, whose dioxin-spewing mining facility on the western shore of the Great Salt Lake for years was considered the country's worst polluter.
This is an appointment intended to destroy the environment, not protect it; to flout the law, not enforce it. For a president whose environmental record is already, according to centrist presidential contender Joe Lieberman, the worst in history, this is not an accommodation of the nation's wishes aimed at mollifying pre-election criticism. Instead, Bush is polishing his anti-environmental credentials. Having Leavitt run the EPA is like putting Al Capone in charge of the IRS. Or Willie Sutton at the head of Bank of America. And having Bush come to the Pacific Northwest to don a flannel shirt and pose with hatchery salmon is an insult to everyone who cares about our region's natural beauty.
DUBYA'S EXTREMISM wouldn't be possible had the nation's major environmental groups not spent the past three decades forfeiting their considerable public support in favor of Beltway compromising. It's the same trap that has seen Democrats move steadily rightward and away from any consistent governing philosophy, to "take advantage" of neocon extremism, thus allowing the right wing to also move ever rightward. After nearly three years of policy-inflicted damage to the environment that will take decades or eons to undo, will environmental groups now be able to muster enough public outrage to seriously challenge Leavitt's nomination? Will Senate Democrats work to stop him from assuming power? Will they finally begin speaking out for the majority of Americans on environmental issues and fighting against Bush's despoiling of our planet like they mean it?
To glimpse the alternative, don't bother watching Bush's fishy stage tricks this week. Instead, take a good look at the yellowish-brown sludge Mike Leavitt is leaving the residents of Utah.