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ACTIVISTS SAY 1995 CONGRESS TOUGHEST YET ON ENVIRONMENT

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An environmental activist group said lawmakers in Congress last year cast more votes that threaten the environment than in 25 years of the group's scorekeeping.

"They have underestimated citizens' unwavering support for strengthening - not weakening - laws that protect our air, our water and our health, " said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. Since Republicans took control of Congress in January 1995, they and some conservative Democrats have pushed measures to lift or ease federal regulations. Republican leaders say federal environmental regulations are too burdensome on U.S. industry and need overhauling.The league checked how lawmakers voted on 12 key issues in the House and 14 in the Senate, ranging from logging, to clean water, to scaling back the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement powers.

About 25 percent of Congress - 111 lawmakers in the House and 24 senators - voted against the league's positions each time. Except for one House Democrat, these lawmakers are Republicans.

Many of the environmental votes on the league's list were debated as "riders" - policy provisions tucked into spending bills that Congress must pass each year.

Among these were measures to eliminate EPA's role in protecting wetlands, to exempt oil refineries from air toxic standards, to prohibit EPA from regulating arsenic, radon and sulfates in drinking water and to block enforcement of clean air provisions.

Congressional leaders put 17 environment-related provisions in the regular annual spending bill for the Veterans Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the EPA and other agencies. President Clinton vetoed the bill last December.

The league's use of those votes to rank lawmakers is unfair, said the legislative director for Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the lone Democrat to score zero with the league.

"He is on the Commerce Committee that produces environmental legislation such as the Superfund and the Safe Drinking Water Act," said the aide, Grace Warren. "He has supported those pieces of legislation."

Hall's congressional district houses several light manufacturing companies, among them Johnson & Johnson and Kraft General Foods Inc.

Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, whom the league ranked as highly friendly to the environment with a score of 92, said the "riders were a very important and key vote to protecting the environment."

Boehlert, along with Ohio Democratic Rep. Louis Stokes, introduced an amendment to eliminate the controversial environment-related provisions in the VA-HUD spending bill. Their effort failed last year.

Republican leaders say they'll continue to push for major changes in the country's environmental laws, including the clean water act, endangered species laws and the superfund hazardous waste laws.