U.S. Workers' Group Says EPA Censors Comments
DENVER − The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency censored warnings that a Bush administration plan to build roads in national forests could harm drinking water, a group representing government workers said Monday.
The Bush administration wants to replace a Clinton era rule that put nearly 58.5 million acres of national forest land off limits to road building.
New roads would allow heavy machinery access to back country areas and make commercial logging feasible.
Prohibiting roads on about 30 percent of federal forests would protect habitat and wildlife and save taxpayers money, proponents of the roadless rule say.
"No public expression of dissent is allowed in the federal government now," Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility known as PEER, said.
The problem arose after the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asked for comments on building roads in pristine national forests.
An EPA staffer wrote that building roads through swaths of land previously untouched would deteriorate the qualify of water in streams and have an impact on public drinking water.
Ruch said that EPA employees related that Steven Shimborg, a political appointee at the EPA, dismissed the staff draft as a "rant" and ordered the objections stricken from the EPA comments.
"I think that PEER is off the mark on this one," Cynthia Bergman, press secretary at the EPA said.
Bergman said she did not know if Shimborg had used the word rant. "His concerns were that the final report focus on EPA's area of expertise and not where we don't have jurisdiction," Bergman said.
The EPA comments also recommended that the Forest Service address its concerns about water quality. "And we volunteered to assist in this service," Bergman said. The Clinton rule spawned a number of lawsuits from logging companies and several western states which were affected by the roadless rules.
According to Defenders of Wildlife, the Forest Service has built more than 360,000 miles of roads in national forests -- or eight times the length of the U.S. interstate highway system.
Under the new proposal, governors could still maintain roadless rules in their states if they petitioned the federal government, but environmentalists say that states such as Colorado and Idaho would probably not ask to be exempted.