Vice President Al Gore is known as an environmentalist, and his bid to become President has won endorsements from all the major environmental groups.
Opponents of Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush point to Texas as one of the most polluted states in the nation, but Bush has refused to give ground on the issue and has come out with detailed plans he hopes will hasten the cleanup of abandoned industrial sites -- known as brownfields.
"This is a very big deal," said Bill Kovacs, vice president of the environmental and regulatory affairs division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There are 600,000 potential brownfields sites, according to the GAO (Government Accounting Office) that are not being developed because of fears of legal liability should any contamination be found on them."
To deal with this problem, Bush has proposed federal legislation to grant developers who meet national standards protection from liability if they reclaim the land. The governor says his approach at the state level in Texas has led to the rehabilitation of 451 properties.
Redeveloping the brownfields is not only appealing to business interests. Opponents of urban sprawl argue that fears of litigation and regulation often make it easier to pave ''greenfields'' instead of redeveloping brownfields.
But that''s not how the Sierra Club sees things. "Our concern with the governor''s proposal for brownfields is that it doesn''t provide adequate clean up for the future use of that site," said spokesperson Allen Mattison. "If you clean up a site 50 percent, that creates real health problems for people and workers."
Mattison conceded that the club does not disagree with the idea of developing brownfields, but added that given Bush''s lax standards for cleaning up air pollution, there was reason to be skeptical about his proposal.
The Sierra Club has officially endorsed Vice President Al Gore''s attempt to become the next President.
Linda Garzcynski of EPA says there is nothing so special about what Bush has done about brownfields in Texas. "For the past five years we''ve been helping states do precisely what the Texas program is doing," said Garzcynski.
EPA has also come out in favor of liability protection, she said, but a bill favored by the agency, S. 2700, was killed by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Kovacs called S. 2700 a flawed bill that did not go as far as the Chamber wanted.
"The problem is EPA always wants to retain the right to go back to these sites," he said. "The Chamber wants the states to have this power, in the event of fraud or catastrophe. That''s the issue."
It is not yet clear whether Bush''s legislative proposal will go this far, but the governor has sharply criticized the Clinton-Gore Administration for an approach that is too suspicious of local governments and private markets.
by James Nash