Freaky Fridays with the Bush administration

Officials deliver bad news on the environment when no one is listening

  • White House press strategy cartoon

    MATT WUERKER
 

On Friday, Oct. 10, the Bush administration made it easier for mining companies to dump tailings on federal land. The timing of the announcement fit what environmental groups call the “Friday Follies.”

“It’s a very effective strategy, a very cynical strategy,” says Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. “It’s sneaky.”

When the Bush administration does something that’s bad for the environment, it’s often rolled out on a Friday, Perks says. That makes it difficult for news organizations to cover, because reporters and editors are already busy doing work for weekend publication or broadcast. And there is less chance for follow-up coverage, because newsroom staffing is at its thinnest on Saturdays and Sundays.

Administration officials “don’t want (news) coverage,” Perks says. “Friday is always a terrible day for coverage, and the fewest people read newspapers on Saturdays, so (even if a story does get cranked out) fewer people are going to see it.”

Perks’ group has compiled a list of more than 100 environmental policy rollbacks by the administration, and at least 58 have come down either on Fridays or just before holidays.

Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency’s relaxation of “New Source Review” air pollution regulations (two decisions on Fridays in October and November, 2002, then another on New Year’s Eve); the EPA’s reduction of wetlands protection (Friday, Jan. 10); the administration’s settlement of a lawsuit over wilderness in Utah, which opens the door for development (Friday, April 11); and the Department of Energy’s decision to spend billions on new nuclear weapons (Friday, June 6).

“The administration announces policies when they’re ready to be released, no matter what the issue is,” says Jimmy Orr, a White House spokesman.

But journalists see a pattern, too. “It does seem like there have been a lot of big decisions and announcements made not in prime time — late on Fridays, or as holidays approach, or at odd hours, late in (any) afternoon,” says Eric Pianin, a Washington Post reporter who covers the environment. “I don’t think it’s all orchestrated or all intentional, but (sometimes it is), and it forces you to scramble, or perform triage.”

A gift to the mining industry

The administration’s latest “Friday folly” — the rollback on mine tailings — arrived in an Interior Department press conference at 5 p.m. East Coast time, just before the three-day Columbus Day weekend.

The news was leaked to an Associated Press reporter a few hours in advance, so an AP story was available for publication around the country on Saturday. But the news still didn’t get much play. The Los Angeles Times was apparently the only major paper that wrote its own story. The tailings policy grows out of a new interpretation by Interior Department lawyers of the 1872 General Mining Act. In 1997, the Clinton administration’s Interior solicitor, John Leshy, held that the Mining Act limited how much land companies could claim for mill sites: only five acres for every 20 acres mined. The limit was applauded by environmentalists, because modern mill sites typically include massive tailings piles, machinery, roads and power stations.

But in 1999, industry complaints about that limit prompted its allies in Congress to exempt existing mines, through a rider attached to a bill for the Kosovo war and Honduran hurricane victims (HCN, 6/7/99: Miners sneak a rider onto an appropriation for war). The Oct. 10 announcement goes much further: Roderick Walston, Interior’s current deputy solicitor, says the Mining Act does not limit mill sites for new mines, either. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Rebecca Watson, a former industry lobbyist, says the change will likely encourage mining exploration. “It’s not a rollback of environmental regulations,” says Russ Fields, president of the Nevada Mining Association, because mines must still satisfy federal and state pollution laws.

But environmental groups say the change will allow giant mines to get even bigger. “Now, if a new mine wants 100 acres or 1,000 acres (for tailings and milling), they can have it,” says Lexi Shultz of the Mineral Policy Center.

As for the timing of the announcement, the Interior Department says it was orchestrated by Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons, both from the mining state of Nevada. But the Friday pattern continued uninterrupted: The next Friday, Oct. 17, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it won’t regulate potentially toxic dioxin compounds in sewage sludge used as as farm fertilizer. And on Friday, Oct. 24, Interior’s opinion on tailings was entered into the Federal Register, closing off any chance for public comment.

“This administration believes the less information the public has, the better,” Perks says. “Every Friday is Friday the 13th with the Bush administration.”

The author is HCN’s editor in the field.

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