Story by Living on Earth. Listen to audio above for full interview.
There's a movement in Congress to exempt the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from environmental regulations, like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
A bill, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), that has been passed out of the House's Natural Resources Committee would grant DHS the authority to waive virtually any environmental law when operating on federal land — including national parks — within 100 mile of any border.
"Border Patrol should not be stopped or inhibited in anything they try to do. The environment is being trashed by illegal entry," he said. "It's not national security that's threatening our environment. It's the lack of national security that is threatening our environment."
Understandably, enviornmentalists and officials from government agencies charged with protecting the environment are outraged at the prospect of a rollback of environmental protections. John Leshy, who was general counsel for the Department of Interior under President Bill Clinton and is now a professor of law at the University of California-Hastings, says nothing needs to change.
"They have limited authority to (make exceptions) under some laws passed under the Republican Congress in the Bush Administration. It’s very localized and very limited," Leshy said. "What this would do is take that little, sort of, camel's nose under the tent and put the entire camel inside the tent."
Though the bill has outraged environmentalists, it's actually a stripped down version of an earlier bill that would have granted the same exception, but included private lands as well as public and would have extended to coastal boundaries as well. For example, DHS would have been exempt from all environmental laws while operating in the entire state of Florida.
"Nobody in the federal executive branch now - at DHS or in the Interior or Agriculture Departments - favors this exemption. They say we don’t need it," Leshy said.
For Republicans, securing the borders has become a major agenda item for members of the Tea Party. Many also deride environmental regulations as unnecessary government intrudion. This legislation would allow Republicans to appeal to the conservative base in two different ways at the same time, Leshy said.
The legislation now moves on to other committees being going for a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. It is expected to pass there, though it's future when it gets to the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate is much less certain.
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