- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

President Bush is getting high marks for tackling tough environmental issues that he inherited from the previous administration, but supporters fear the absence of an organized effort to explain his decisions leaves him vulnerable to attacks from Democrats.
In signs that the offensive against the White House was working, the Bush administration yesterday announced plans to tighten standards for arsenic in drinking water within nine months.
Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said she was asking the National Academy of Sciences to examine the effects of reductions.
Supporters say the Bush administration has made sound decisions regarding energy-saving standards for home appliances, arsenic levels in drinking water and carbon dioxide emissions.
But a clear lack of communications strategy gives Democrats and environmental supporters center stage to denounce the new rules as decisions that will severely damage the environment, giving the public the impression that the administration is insensitive to the issue.
"They have made some ghastly public relations blunders and opened themselves to unnecessary attack by the environmental community," said Myron Ebell, an environmental policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"They are making the right decisions, but they havent explained why they are making them," Mr. Ebell said. "The manner in which they are proceeding is mystifying."
The Clinton administration spent the last days in office planting environmental "land mines and booby traps" for the new administration, Mr. Ebell said.
"Those midnight regulations were irrational and very imprudent, and at the same time they knew it would cause an outcry among certain special-interest groups," he said.
A Sept. 14 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded additional research was needed to address the "scientific uncertainty concerning the health effects and risk associated with arsenic exposures."
The Clinton regulation, issued three days before the end of his presidency, would allow arsenic levels in drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb), a substantial reduction from the current standard of 50 ppb. The Bush administration appeared yesterday to retreat from its decision to stay the the rule and asked the National Academy of Sciences to study levels of three to 20 ppb.
"The Bush administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Mrs. Whitman said in a written statement, promising a final regulation within nine months.
The Bush administrations decision on March 20 to stop the regulation created an uproar among environmentalists, congressional Democrats and members of the public.
Mrs. Whitman argued that scientific evidence was insufficient to justify the $200 million annual cost to municipalities, states and industry of meeting the Clinton standards by 2006.
"I have said consistently that we will obtain the necessary scientific review and that we will establish that standard in a timely manner," she said yesterday.
Environmentalists, who for years have argued for stricter arsenic standards, criticized the EPA yesterday for putting off a final decision.
"Were outraged that this is going to assure a year of delays for protection of public health for millions of Americans," said Erik D. Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
He said the parameters set by Mrs. Whitman are "a pretty clear signal" that the EPA is headed toward settling at arsenic levels of 20 parts per billion twice the concentration of the Clinton standards.
Arsenic occurs naturally in water and is a necessary part of the human diet, say supporters of the Bush administration review.
Critics of the presidents first 100 days point to the arsenic rule review and suggest the administration favors poisoned water.
Independent pollster John Zogby compared the arsenic review to a Reagan administration decision to ease costly federal mandates on school lunch programs by allowing schools to define ketchup as a vegetable.
"The broad scope may have been justified, but it sounded heartless and still does," Mr. Zogby said.
The Bush administrations decision to review the arsenic rule "could be his ketchup," he said.
Communication missteps in the beginning of an administration are expected and not as damaging as pitfalls just months before the 2002 midterm elections, said John Czwartacki communication strategist for Greener and Hook.
"I think theyve handled it as well as can be expected; even they need some time to program their speed dial," Mr. Czwartacki said.

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