Clearing the Air’ About Environmental Record

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Rich Jefferson describes how enviromentalist fight to win PR battle not save the planet

If you’ve ever felt that greens care more about political clout than the environment, you need “Clearing The Air” by Becky Norton Dunlop. Read it, and you will understand why you feel that way.

From the moment former Gov. (and now U.S. Sen.-elect) George Allen announced her appointment in late 1993, Dunlop was attacked and misrepresented by environmental extremists.

She had been a senior official in the Reagan administration. She worked in the White House, served as Deputy Under Secretary of the Department of Interior, and Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

As it turned out, the very people who claimed to care most about the environment often seemed much more interested in wielding their political clout, not the health of the environment.

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The federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act are, to a great extent, administered by the states. To meet Clean Air Act requirements, Virginia had to reduce ground level ozone, which results from hot summer days and too many cars. The brunt of the requirements impacted the most densely populated area of the state, just outside Washington, D.C. Dunlop presented a plan to achieve this that was superior to the one favored by the feds, which didn’t exactly thrill the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Thank goodness she did. Vice President Al Gore and EPA Administrator Carol Browner meant it when they talked about eliminating the internal combustion engine. The proof is in the EPA’s plan for Virginia. The agency originally wanted to allow only 10 centralized locations where all motorists in Northern Virginia would have to take their vehicle for inspections and repairs to emission systems. The EPA also did not want to authorize service stations to perform both inspections and repairs. Under that scenario, maybe you could catch a nap in your car while you waited in line behind thousands of others for an inspection. Then you would have to drive elsewhere for repairs and get in another line. It was a fine recipe for more pollution from cars idling in long lines and road rage from frustrated motorists.

Dunlop had a solution that gave Virginians better air quality along with better quality of life, but the EPA resisted. “Today, more than 350 private auto repair centers and service stations successfully conduct inspections and repairs of autos for the citizens of northern Virginia in the Aircheck Virginia system launched by the Allen Administration,” she writes.

No good deed goes unpunished, however, as Dunlop discovered. Under Gore and Browner, the EPA played a mean-spirited, Clinton-style public relations game. The EPA would leak critical information while threatening Virginia officials, thus setting them up to cave in or suffer the consequences. Then EPA told reporters that Virginia was trying to pick a fight with the federal government. This pattern was repeated more than once.

The media ignored Dunlop’s decisions to improve the management of natural resources. For example, when the Allen administration decided to combine the disparate elements of the state’s Chesapeake Bay program into a single agency to improve efficiency, every one of the green leaders thought it was a good idea. It just never made news.

“Joe Maroon, the environmental activist who headed up the Chesapeake Bay Foundation,” she writes, “who had formerly worked for (Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly), was very pleased at our decision but told associates that he would decline to offer public expressions of support because he didn’t want to be caught giving credibility to this Bay initiative that might seem supportive of Becky Norton Dunlop and George Allen.”

You see, it’s not the environment that matters. What really matters is the political power gained through environmental activism.

“Clearing The Air” does not and could not possibly cover everything from the Dunlop years.

Deputy Secretary Tom Hopkins once asked me to attend a legislative planning session for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that was supposed to be open to the public. The Bay Foundation folks did not want me around, however; after all, no one from the Allen administration could care about the environment! They invited me for a chat outside the meeting room and then locked the door behind me. They had their meeting, and I went home to dinner.

The saddest part of the book concerns Tom Hopkins. The short version of Tom’s story is this. He was an attorney with an excellent background in natural resources issues who came to Richmond to serve in the Allen administration. After serving as Deputy Secretary, he was appointed director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Tom was not, by temperament, a political combatant. He was ill prepared, physically or mentally, for the nastiness of the greens. He died of heart failure at age 49 while leading Virginia’s top environmental agency.

“They hounded the man to his death,” says one person quoted in the book. While Dunlop cautions that the remark should not be taken literally, the enviros nevertheless hounded him mercilessly, and now he is dead.

Dunlop remains committed to conserving our natural resources. She also is one of the few people who really agrees with a favorite saying of President Reagan: you can accomplish a lot if you don’t care who gets the credit. If the command-and-control environmentalists, who fought her hook and tong, had spent their resources cooperating with Dunlop and caring about the environment instead of fighting good ideas just because they came from a Republican administration, there is no telling how much credit they could be taking right now for innovative environmental solutions that started when George Allen was Governor of Virginia.

Dunlop now is vice president of external relations for the Heritage Foundation. Her book, “Clearing The Air: How the People of Virginia Improved the State’s Air and Water Despite the EPA,” is co-published by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute in Arlington, Va., and the Northumberland Echo, a newspaper in Northumberland County, Va.

(Editor’s Note: Rich Jefferson worked in the office of the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources from 1994-1995. In addition, he worked at a state agency within the natural resources secretariat; he was public relations manager of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries from 1995-1997. Rich may be contacted via e-mail at