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Norton Wrong Choice for Interior Secretary

Jan. 12, 2001

Norton Wrong Choice for Interior Secretary

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director
Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

We have made much progress over the past three decades in cleaning up our environment, but President-elect Bush’s nomination of Gale Norton for Secretary of the Interior would turn back the clock. Norton has long advocated free-market solutions to environmental problems, which are not successful in keeping our rivers clean and our forests pristine. The “free market” did not help clean up our environment in past years — the government did.

In fact, protecting our environment is one area where government regulation has been a demonstrable success. Americans want leaders who are on their side, promoting environmental policies that make our nation and our world safer, cleaner and healthier. They do not want their leaders to kowtow to wealthy corporate special interests, which Norton likely will do.

Norton was serving as Colorado’s attorney general in 1992 when one of the worst environmental disasters in the state’s history occurred. The Summitville Consolidated Mining Corporation spilled cyanide and acidic water that killed a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River. The company declared bankruptcy, its executives fled the country, and taxpayers were left with a clean-up bill of $150 million.

Although she witnessed this tragedy first hand, Norton still maintains that corporations should be given the right to police themselves instead of having the government do it. She was a strong advocate of Colorado s “self-audit” law, which allows corporations to perform voluntary audits to determine if they are complying with federal environmental regulations. This law also gives companies immunity from fines and lawsuits if they report and correct violations. To Coloradans who used to enjoying fishing in the Alamosa River, it is clear that this sort of fox-guarding-the-hen house strategy for protecting the environment does not and cannot work.

Other highlights of Norton s career do not bode well for the future of our environment. They include:

  • A stint lobbying on behalf of NL Industries of Houston (formerly National Lead Co.), a lead paint manufacturer responsible for 75 Superfund and other toxic-waste sites, and which faces a dozen lawsuits involving children whose parents claim they were poisoned by lead paint;
  • Four years working under former Interior Secretary James Watt at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a far-right, “wise-use” group that views environmental regulations as “property takings” and fights regulations in court with the sponsorship of large corporate donors, such as Coors. Norton has been a member of several other “property rights” organizations, including the Legal Advisory Council for Defense of Property Rights, which view basic environmental protection rules as a violation of the rights of property owners;
  • Working as a lawyer in Reagan s Interior Department from 1985-1987, where she fought to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Our environmental resources are being destroyed faster than we can preserve them. Our environmental policies must continue to move forward, not back to the time when dilution was the solution to pollution, and when our resources were routinely destroyed to further corporate profits. America s forests, public lands, waterways, parks and wildlife refuges must be preserved for future generations including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Norton still wants to open for oil and gas exploration. Doing so could destroy a fragile habitat and likely wouldn t provide a substantial amount of oil.

Norton s philosophy is doubly disturbing. Not only does she want to clear-cut our environmental regulations, but she believes that whatever government regulations are left standing should be pruned back to the nub.