The Rest of the Story

Most of this summer's media coverage has focused on the struggle between change and obstructionism on Capitol Hill, and the story keeps getting uglier and more depressing. But off the front pages, last year's election is having some wonderful results, and we're making real environmental progress.

In the most exciting news, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just upheld the Clinton administration's wild forest protection policy, setting aside a Bush administration effort to open up to roads and logging 58 million acres that represent the best remaining unprotected public lands in the country.

There remains one more legal snarl, in Wyoming, where a federal district judge had thrown the Clinton rule out. But Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack endorsed the ruling, saying "the Obama administration supports conservation of roadless areas in our national forests, and this decision today reaffirms the protection of these resources."

The Courts don't always get it right -- and the recent Supreme Court decision allowing mining waste to be dumped without a permit is a spectacular example. But even that defeat is being contested. The Environmental Protection Agency announced this month that it was asking the Army Corps of Engineers to reevaluate the original concept of storing the mining wastes on land rather than filling up Slate Lake.

The five-year cover-up of the FEMA toxic trailer scandal also came to a blessed close this month, when the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security issued a report admitting that the agency had mismanaged the issue; that there had been a cover-up and a lack of urgency; and that it had been the Sierra Club that finally brought the issue to public attention and forced the agency to act.  Such Inspector General's reports occurred in a variety of agencies during the Bushadministration -- but invariably they were dismissed by the administration as unwarranted. This time however, although FEMA had minor quibbles with the report, the agency by and large agreed with the critical findings -- indeed, elections do have consequences.

Formaldehyde is not the only toxic chemical that the American people are now more adequately protected from. During the Bush years, the Sierra Club and other health advocates conducted a long campaign to get lead out of children's toys. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and the EPA simply refused to act, but this month the CPSC levied $530,000 in penalties against nine companies violating lead standards, with individual fines ranging from $30K to $100K.

When I left for India last month, the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River were at serious risk from uranium mining -- when I returned, Interior Secretary Salazar had announced that his agency will temporarily make 1 million acres of public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon off-limits to new uranium mining claims, as well as to exploration and development of existing, unpatented claims.

To make this victory permanent, Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has introduced a bill, the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2009, that would offer forever ban exploration and new claims on roughly these same 1 million acres of public land bordering the Grand Canyon.

And there were other signs that the long-indulged, cosseted, and spoiled mining industry will have to enter the 21st century: The EPA announced that it would issue new rules requiring mining companies to pay the costs of cleaning up after their operations, instead of sticking the taxpayers with the bill as they have done since 1872. That announcement came on July 13, and two days later the other shoe dropped when Interior Secretary Salazar announced that reforming the mining industry would be a top priority for the Obama administration.

So while the obstructionism and deadlock in Congress are distressing, depressing, and ultimately dangerous, we should all take time out to remember that most of the damage George Bush did to the environment he did with strokes of his executive pen, and that the Obama administration is moving with exceptional speed to reverse course and resume environmental progress.