The laws meant to protect future generations may not last one more

After 31 years, my dad has just retired from the police force. Growing up under the ever-watchful eye of a cop, I learned early that when you break a rule, there’s no squirming out of punishment. "Don’t you dare apologize," my dad would thunder when I got into trouble. "You’re only sorry because you got caught."

Though he loves to hike and canoe, he’s a staunch Republican with little patience for my whining about the environment; we’ve knocked heads over politics my entire life. But I’ve come to realize that it’s his fault I’m an environmentalist: His choice of career more than three decades ago shaped my naive faith in the law’s power to keep this planet livable.

When I was 8, I wrote to President Reagan, scolding him for not taking better care of rivers and forests and oceans. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter, complete with the Gipper’s rubber-stamped signature, that essentially said, "That’s the Environmental Protection Agency’s problem."

The EPA also sent a glossy brochure that ticked off the laws it enforces: The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund, Safe Drinking Water Act. The premise behind the agency and the laws was simple enough for even a child to understand. You clean up after yourself, and make sure you leave things nice — or better yet, super — for everyone else.

As a teen-ager, when I complained about decimated rainforests and oil spills in Alaska, my dad would reprimand me. "Things are better now than when I was a kid," he told me once, as we walked along the Housatonic River in Massachusetts. "In the ’50s, this river was green." Green, and sometimes pink: Back then, the river ran whatever color the local mills happened to be dyeing their paper that day.

But rivers like the Housatonic didn’t spontaneously clean themselves, nor did companies voluntarily stop dumping their waste in them. In the 1960s and 1970s — when my dad was roughly the age I am now — Congress passed a string of environmental laws, laws demanded by a public suddenly aware of the need for them.

Though revolutionary in a sense, these are the most sensible laws Americans have today. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) was enacted to "encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment." It requires federal agencies to study the impacts of activities such as road building, logging, mining and grazing before blindly approving projects. The 1964 Wilderness Act protects the last pristine chunks of land from being lost forever. Even the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is pretty straightforward: Plants and animals that humans are driving to extinction deserve protection under a federal law.

But 40 years after Congress passed the first of these laws, companies — and even the government itself — regularly violate environmental laws without suffering any consequences. When corporations contaminate water, leave vast tracts of land uninhabitable or endanger public health, they can deny responsibility and move on, leaving the cost of cleanup to taxpayers. This happened in El Paso, Texas, where for more than 100 years, the mining giant Asarco has run a lead and copper smelter. When the EPA declared portions of the city "emergency Superfund sites" because of arsenic and lead contamination, the company denied responsibility, then said it couldn’t afford cleanup at the El Paso site — or at any of the 45 other Superfund sites it is responsible for — anyway. When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation allowed rivers to dry into cesspools that killed endangered fish — such as the silvery minnow in the Rio Grande or the coho salmon in the Klamath River — no one got in trouble. No one even apologized. Instead, officials sent out press releases saying it wasn’t their fault.

Even more worrisome, President Bush and the 108th Congress are demolishing this country’s legacy of environmental protection. Under the Energy Bill, which Congress plans to vote on this year, oil and gas companies would be exempt from the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Power plants would become dirtier and less safe under changes to the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Department of the Interior is giving potential wilderness areas to oil and gas drillers instead of protecting them for future generations. Congress no longer collects the Superfund tax from corporations — instead, citizens have to foot the bill for cleanup. The White House and Republican lawmakers are trying to "streamline" NEPA, because they say it slows down energy and transportation projects. The Endangered Species Act no longer protects species unlucky enough to live where "wildfire thinning" or "fuel-reduction" projects are proposed. (And when protection of an endangered species gets in the way of development and growth, as has happened with the Rio Grande’s silvery minnow, lawmakers simply change the law.)

As my dad rediscovers how nice life off the force is, he’s gearing up for trips to wild places — he’s already planning to go to Alaska and Nevada, two states he’s never seen. He’s also eager to visit his 16-month-old granddaughter, Molly, who lives in the Rocky Mountains, and who can coax a smile out of him in a way that’s completely new to my brother and me.

As my niece grows up, I’m looking forward to the day my dad takes her hiking. I’m hoping he’ll repeat to her the same words he said to me 15 years ago: "Things are better now than when I was a kid." And I’m hoping that she can say the same to her grandchildren.

The author is an assistant editor for High Country News.