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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan, 5761

Joan Lowy and Ryan Alessi

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Environmental programs take big hit in Bush budget -- THE federal budget unveiled Monday by the Bush administration would cut environmental programs by roughly $3 billion, with water pollution, renewable energy and wetlands preservation programs taking some of the hardest hits.

The proposed Environmental Protection Agency budget fiscal year 2002 is $7.3 billion, a $500 million reduction from the current fiscal 2001 budget. It anticipates a cut of 500 jobs in EPA's work force, with nearly half the positions - 223 jobs - coming from the agency's budget for enforcing pollution laws.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman emphasized that the proposed budget would create a new $450 million program to make money available to states to upgrade aging sewer systems that often overflow, polluting rivers, ponds and lakes.

However, existing EPA water pollution programs would be cut by over twice that amount, for a net reduction of $463 million.

The administration is "giving with one hand and taking away with two hands,'' said Wesley Warren, a policy expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposed EPA budget also creates a new $25 million grant program to help states enforce environmental laws. The money comes out of EPA's current enforcement program.

Whitman has argued that some states can do a better job of enforcement than the federal government, but environmentalists say that many state environmental agencies - including Texas - are notoriously lax in enforcement of laws.

The proposed budget should be judged not as a reduction from the current EPA budget, but as "the second-highest operating budget in the history of this agency,'' Whitman said.

The Energy Department's budget slashes energy conservation programs and research on renewable energy sources like solar and wind power by $156 million, while creating a new $150 million coal technology research program.

Despite saying the country was in the worst energy crisis since the 1970s, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the department wanted to "back off" from some energy research programs until the administration's energy task force, lead by Vice President Dick Cheney, makes its recommendations.

"We'll have to decide whether energy efficiency and conservation programs make a significant contribution," Abraham said. "And they will. We just don't know how much."

The cutbacks in renewable energy and energy conservation drew fierce criticism from environmentalists.

"These are not exotic technologies," said Jim Lyon, legislative director for the National Wildlife Foundation. "The administration is banging the drum of the so-called energy crisis, so we need to be reinvesting in the clean fuels that can take us into the 21st century."

Administration officials have said the country cannot afford to abandon fossil fuels, including coal. Critics contend that despite billions of dollars in federal assistance, clean-coal technologies have managed to make coal-fired power plants only marginally less dirty than before and have not achieved widespread commercial use.

The Energy Department budget also cuts environmental cleanup programs at the nation's nuclear weapons plants by more than $450 million.

The proposed budget for the Agriculture Department eliminates all funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program, which compensates farmers who protect wetlands on their property.

Far more farmers apply to the program than can be compensated under its present funding level, which is $162 million in fiscal 2001. Environmentalists have been lobbying Congress to double funding for the program.

"This is a completely bewildering decision from a president who professes to want voluntary, incentive-oriented approaches to environmental problems,'' said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group.

Bush appears to have backed off a campaign promise made last August in a speech in Miami in which he said that if elected he would seek a $100 million increase in funds to protect rain forests around the world. The proposed Treasury Department budget includes $13 million for the rain forest protection program, the same amount as this year, and takes the money away from other foreign aid programs.

The Interior Department's proposed $10 billion budget is a $346 million reduction over the current budget. The department would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which primarily makes conservation grants to states and localities, but some public agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the Office of Surface Mining and Fish and Wildlife Service would take significant cuts.

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