Who Really Deserves Credit for Cleaner Air & Water?

Who Really Deserves Credit for Cleaner Air & Water?

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John Hollenhorst ReportingWhen Governor Leavitt was named yesterday by President Bush to become the nation's top pollution watchdog, he seemed to take personal credit for cleaner air and water in Utah. And yet, both the Governor and the President are under attack from environmentalists on several fronts.

Is the environment cleaner? And who gets the credit?

Everyone complains about dirty air. And everyone worries about bad water. So where was Leavitt coming from when he said this about his three terms as Governor?

The truth is, experts say, the air is cleaner. The water has better quality. Environmentalists rarely admit it, but experts say the data proves it.

Chris Jones, Environmental Council of the States: "I think the clear trend, by every measurement, is that both the air quality and water quality are getting better."

But does that mean Governor Leavitt made it happen? The answer to that is 'not exactly'. By coincidence top pollution regulators from every state were meeting in Salt Lake today. They gave Leavitt two standing ovations. But experts here say the cleanup trend is happening in all their states, not just Utah.

And it was set in motion three decades ago. Tough laws were passed in the face of strong resistance from many of the same business groups that now have the ear of President Bush. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act in the early 1970's, the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1980s led to increasingly tough federal health standards, backed up with sharp regulatory teeth.

Ronald Hammerschmidt, Kansas Environmental Chief: "Enforcement, the club, is one of those ways to encourage and demand compliance from people who need to comply."

Since the 70's, industries reduced pollution, sewage systems got much better, cars became dramatically cleaner. The air and water steadily improved.

During Leavitt's years, states did become the main enforcers of federal pollution laws. Experts here give him credit for not derailing progress.

Chris Jones, Environmental Council of the States: "What credit is due is, the continuing trend."

Some critics have labeled Leavitt anti-regulation, but his speech emphasized balance.

Gov. Mike Leavitt: "There are times when the power of government has to be used in order to move people forward, but that it is rarely superior in its effect when you can get people to do things voluntarily."

State regulators say enforcement is a vital tool.

Ronald Hammerschmidt, Kansas Environmental Chief: "We've come a long ways in 30 years. We've got a long ways to go. Now is not the time to stop."

No one knows how tough Leavitt will be, or allowed to be at EPA. But his early reviews are sharply divided, with environmentalists booing and business groups cheering. The Governor's appointment as EPA administrator still needs to win approval from the U.S. Senate.

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