Naked City

Greenwashing "Brownfields"

If a leopard can't change its spots, what chance does Gov. George W. Bush have of convincing voters he cares about the environment? Not much, says Deb Callahan, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, a group that dumped on Bush earlier this year for his lack of green credentials. In fact, despite being pleased that he finally broached the topic of the environment earlier this month, proposing an initiative to reform federal Superfund laws, Callahan has some free advice for Bush: "The worst time to become an environmentalist," she says, "is in the middle of an election."

And although Bush has emerged as the first presidential candidate to articulate a specific environmental proposal as part of his campaign, most environmental leaders are less than impressed with the details. If elected, Bush says, he aims to replace the Environmental Protection Agency's approach to cleaning up sites known as "brownfields" -- which EPA literature defines as industrial facilities that have been abandoned or which are underused due to contamination.

Overall, an estimated 450,000 brownfields exist across the nation. Bush argues that unless the national approach to renovating such areas changes, developers will choose to build on more pristine spots rather than redeveloping these contaminated areas. "The old system of mandate, regulate, and mitigate only sends developers off in search of greener pastures -- literally," says Bush. "Brownfields get passed over while green fields get paved over."

To solve the problem, Bush recommends a six-point plan that would speed the renovation of brownfields, chiefly by taking the federal government out of the loop and establishing state control over cleanup (see box). Several states have come up with similar proposals to lessen federal interference. But even those who agree that the EPA needs reform don't necessarily believe Bush's plan is a good one.

Still, as a measure of the potential for success under these new rules, Bush points to 451 brownfield cleanups across Texas under his Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP) that have added $200 million to local property tax coffers. Winners under the VCP, in Bush's view, include gardens in San Antonio, a mission in Dallas, and a Latino learning center in Houston -- each located at a renovated site. His campaign literature, however, makes no mention of the reclamation of an additional 1,200 acres in Dallas under the federal Superfund program, which prompted nearly $110 million in private investments and created 1,700 jobs.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, says Bush's brownfields plan comes up short. Having worked to establish state Superfund laws for Texas in 1985, Kramer follows the lead of the Sierra Club's national membership, which has spent the past couple of years fighting to keep the national Superfund laws strong. In particular, Kramer says that the Bush plan neither allows for enough public participation, nor sets the bar high enough in terms of land rehabilitation.

Under the Voluntary Cleanup Program, Kramer says, "they're not required to clean up to the levels that existed before man's interference." Overall, Kramer says, Bush has shown himself to be a better friend to industry than to the public. "It goes back in part to his position as a true conservative," says Kramer. "When it comes to economic issues and related environmental issues, he's very laissez-faire."

The LCV's Callahan agrees with this assessment. "In terms of his approach to the issue of brownfields cleanup, Bush hasn't really done a lot to allay our fears," she says. "At the end of the day, Bush's record is going to hurt him."

Anybody that needs further testimony to Bush's environmental greenwashing needed to look no further than last week's state Task Force on Conservation hearing at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The hastily recruited group, which was convened in February, is expected to make sweeping recommendations on maintaining Texas's state lands in time for the fall election season.

The group took testimony from a variety of parties at the hearing. Though some complained that conservation was incompatible with private-property rights, the number one issue at hand was funding for state parks. Given that Texas state-park funding levels rank 49th in the nation per capita -- and acquisition levels have remained at a standstill throughout Bush's tenure as governor -- this candidate may have some unofficial brownfields he wants to attend to before he tries to convince anybody else that he's turning over a green leaf.

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