Senators Award "Toxic Trophy" to Attorney General Ashcroft

Justice department's failure to defend the nation's environmental laws criticized


Joan Mulhern x223

Senators Charles Schumer (NY) and Barbara Boxer (CA) today gave US Attorney General John Ashcroft a “Toxic Trophy” for the Department of Justice’s failure to defend key environmental protection laws and policies. Senator Boxer, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management, and Senator Schumer, Chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, criticized the Attorney General and Department of Justice for lax defense of policies that are meant to protect clean air, clean water, community health, endangered species and public lands. Earthjustice commended the Senators for their efforts to bring attention to the problem.

“During their first months in office the Bush administration tried to get Congress or federal agencies to weaken environmental laws and programs,” said Buck Parker, executive director of the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. “Increasingly, they are shifting their efforts to the courts. The Bush administration’s Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Ashcroft, is not aggressively defending anti-environmental suits brought by industry, and the predictable result is the substantial weakening of environmental laws. It is a strategy designed to shield the administration from political accountability for its anti-environmental policies.”

“Earthjustice supports the work of Senators Schumer and Boxer for bringing this problem to the public’s attention,” Parker added. “We hope that their actions today will bring more public and Congressional scrutiny to the Department’s record in environmental cases.”

At a Capitol Hill news conference, Senator Schumer released a report documenting eleven cases involving national environmental protection policies in which the Justice Department failed to defend environmental regulations from industry challenges, did not appeal adverse decisions, or entered into settlement discussions with parties trying to overturn environmental protections while excluding other parties from these negotiations, including states and nonprofit groups, that intervened in the cases to ensure that the courts uphold the laws.

“The Justice Department’s failure to vigorously defend key environmental protections is the latest tactic by the Bush administration to overturn or undermine natural resource and public health protections,” said Maria Weidner, Earthjustice policy analyst and coordinator of the group’s ‘White House Watch’ project. “The Department’s passive ‘defense’ strategy circumvents legislative and administrative procedures that let the public know these polices are in danger of being weakened.”

Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, said that during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, then Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft repeatedly pledged to defend the nation’s environmental protection laws, even if he disagreed with the underlying policies.

“Members of the public depend on the Department of Justice to strongly defend the federal laws that protect their communities, the health of their families, and the endangered species and natural places that they value and want preserved,” said Mulhern. “Unfortunately, Senator Schumer’s report shows that there is a pattern emerging in the Justice Department’s handling of several environmental cases, each of national significance, that this obligation is not being fully met.”

“We hope that the report and the ‘Toxic Trophy’ award announced by Senators Boxer and Schumer will provide a needed wakeup call to the Attorney General and the Bush administration that the failure to aggressively defend our nation’s environmental laws will not go unnoticed – or unchallenged,” Mulhern added.

The environmental cases analyzed in the Schumer report include the Department of Justice’s response to challenges to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that would prohibit roadbuilding and most logging in the last-remaining undisturbed areas of national forests, the phase-out of the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, regulations to prevent the pollution of wetlands and streams, the preservation of habitat for endangered species, the cleanup of toxic waste contamination, a rule reducing unhealthy air pollution from diesel engines, the ability of citizens to enforce restrictions on coal mining, and other laws.

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