Printer Friendly

Slime green: the big environmental groups help Clinton sell out.

Back in June 1995 a fervent advertisement taken out by the Big Green groups ran in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Thank You, Mr. President, for Standing Tall! blared the banner. The text proclaimed that Bill Clinton deserved the gratitude of every environmentalist for refusing to bow "to the special interests who plunder our natural heritage and rob future generations of their legacy." Furious abuse of the Republicans in the 104th Congress took up much of the ad.

Prompting this costly spasm of congratulation was the mistaken belief that President Clinton had just vetoed the revised budget bill because it would unleash the timber companies into old-growth forests for the first time since the early Bush years, place them beyond the reach of any existing law or regulation, and render them immune to any challenge in the courts.

The Big Green groups were right about one thing. Clinton had vetoed the bill. But they didn't bother to read his explanation. It had nothing to do with trees.

Clinton was angry because the revised budget had slashed funding for his beloved AmeriCorps program. He said he couldn't wait to sign the bits of the bill aimed at increasing logging in the national forests and insisted proudly that "I've done more for logging than anyone else in the country."

So it came to pass that President Bill duly signed the logging exemption into law in July 1995 and the big, old trees began to fall.

One would have thought that the leaders of the green groups would have retired to the bathrooms of their plush executive suites in northwest Washington to sponge the egg off their faces.

Not so. Six months later, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, League of Conservation Voters, and several other groups paid for another spate of ads in The Washington Post, chorusing, Thank You, Mr. President, for Defending Our Environment.

The determination to greenwash Clinton would be comical if it did not reflect such a betrayal of everything the environmental movement should stand for. In a nationally covered episode in early February, John Flicker, freshly installed head of the National Audubon Society, made an unprecedented intrusion into the editorial processes of the Society's Audubon magazine and insisted that an article by former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker be killed. Wicker had made some very mild criticisms of Clinton, and Flicker feared that the article would damage his standing at the White House.

Since the day Clinton took office, the national green organizations have made it a concerted policy to condone if possible and conceal if necessary every environmental misdeed perpetrated by the President and his party. The normal justification for such a policy - that support extorts useful concessions - is inoperative in this case, since the record of the Big Green groups in winning any concession is an absolute zero.

The end result has been a confidence trick of truly gigantic proportions, played upon an unsuspecting public that has expressed very strong concern for maintaining, and even strengthening, environmental protections. Public sentiment on this issue has long been strong, according to polls.

Clinton's strategy has been to highlight the Republican ultras as looters and despoilers of God's creation, as opposed to the wise stewardship practiced by his Administration. Promotion of this myth has required the cooperation of the Big Green groups, a cooperation they have eagerly extended.

The official version of last year's political battles over the environment, due to be endlessly recycled through Campaign '96, goes something like this: As the Republican Visigoths swept into the 104th Congress in January 1995, trembling greens predicted that not an old-growth tree nor an endangered species would be spared.

The Republican threats were terrible to behold. They proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They vowed to establish a commission to shut down several national parks, to relax standards on the production and disposal of toxic waste, to turn over enforcement of clean water and air standards to the states. They uttered fearsome threats against the Endangered Species Act. They boasted of plans to double the amount of logging in national forests.

American politics thrives on these simple legends of virtue combating vice.

As regards the environment, the Republican ultras did not carry all before them. They didn't need to. Clinton and the Democrats had already done most of the damage themselves.

While environmental groups were releasing mass mailings calling for cash contributions to help beat back GOP efforts to sell off America's public lands, the Clinton crowd was contemplating precisely such a move to help balance the budget. Mike Dombeck, director of the Bureau of Land Management, suggested in a memo to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that billions of dollars could be raised by selling off 150 million acres of federal lands to the states or to commercial interests.

Clinton eagerly signed one of the very first bills passed by the Republican-dominated Congress, addressing the "unfunded mandates," with states rebelling against costs imposed on them by federal regulations. This surrender, in the early spring 1995, handed the Republicans the central concession pressed by corporations and their neoliberal accomplices in the think-tanks: "Market forces," not government regulations, should govern the handling of environmental issues. This was the moment when the national environmental organizations should have withdrawn all support from the Clinton Administration since the President's signature on the unfunded mandates bill signaled many of the surrenders that were to come.

Take drinking water. Municipalities, corporations, and utilities had argued that current federal standards were too stringent, requiring costly plants and burdensome regulatory oversight. The Clinton Administration duly supported diluting the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now increased levels of lead, radon, and arsenic will be allowed to enter the nation's water supplies for the first time since the days of the Ford Administration, when the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed.

Instead of funding mass-transit project the Clinton Administration caved on fuel efficiency, despite Vice President Al Gore's oft-trumpeted determination that rigid standards be met.

Nowhere has there been more tendentious journalism than on the issue of oldgrowth logging. Last fall reporters such as Tim Egan of The New York Times suddenly discovered a mysterious "loophole" (supposedly unnoticed by President Clinton and his advisers) in the revised budge bill that mandated 4.5 billion board feet of salvage logging in the national forests and made those timber sales immune to all courtroom challenges.

The "loophole" stories took the line that Clinton & Co. had been duped into signing the legislation by timber companies like Weyerhaeuser and men such as Mark Rey, formerly an industry lobbyist, now chief of staff for the Senate Interior Committee. Team Clinton also supposedly did not realize that the law would permit logging in ancient forest groves to be protected under Clinton's Option 9 Forest Plan for Northwest Forests. As thousand-year-old Douglas firs began to fall in Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains and in the Olympic rainforest of Washington, the duped-by-loophole fiction grew apace.

The idea that legislative wool was pulled over the Clinton Administration's eyes is preposterous. Its point man on these matters is Jim Lyons, the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture who oversees the Forest Service and was previously the very savvy chief of staff for the House Agriculture Committee. There he personally drafted similar laws under the direction o such pillagers of nature as the former Speaker of the House, Tom Foley.

The whole loophole affair was a red herring, intended to distract attention from what the Clinton Administration had accepted as an operating principle: salvage logging. Salvaging meant a green light to cut down any tree - even if it imperiled an endangered species - on the grounds that it might be nibbled at by insects, constitute a fire risk, or act as an inhibition to prudent forest management. The Clinton Forest Plan called this logging strategy "forest health"; it became a way to confiscate the whole logging issue from public scrutiny. Forest health, you see, is a matter for experts, meaning Forest Service rangers working with timber-company foresters. The salvage rider has opened to the chainsaw millions of acres of previously protected forest from Alaska to Mississippi, under legislation against which there can be no appeal.

A similar charade has been played out regarding the Endangered Species Act. With the attention of the press fixed on Representative Don Young's bill, which would crudely destroy the nation's premier wildlife law, more subtle and more successful designs upon the Act have been carried out by the Clinton Administration. From the earliest days, Interior Secretary Babbitt has tried to hollow out the Act by regulatory decree.

Signs of this ploy were apparent as early as March 1993, when Babbitt blessed the "win-win" habitat-conservation plan, whereby endangered species such as the California gnatcatcher would coexist on coastal lands with developers. This perish-in-comity strategy has been duplicated across the country, much to the detriment of grizzly bears (a deathly embrace with ranchers), salmon (win-win again, with mining companies and hydro dams), and red-cockaded woodpeckers (sharing their living space with the Potlatch Timber Company in Clinton's home state of Arkansas).

What the win-win ploy didn't destroy was finished off by the "Reinventing Government" scam. Through the darkest days of Reagan and Bush, the Fish and Wildlife Service could be counted on to hold the line against plans by the industrial agencies of the federal government to destroy the habitat of endangered species. Babbitt has now forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to cooperate in half-a-loaf compromises with the agencies it previously regulated. Call it coercive harmony.

On the international front, the Clinton Administration has been more of an impediment to environmental protection than either the Bush or Reagan regimes. Despite Al Gore's homilies at Rio, the United States has still not signed on to the Convention on Biodiversity, because it opposes the biosafety plank on "genetically manipulated organisms." By way of explanation, consider the huge prospective market for bio-engineered soybeans. Over furious objections from European countries, the United States announced in October that it will permit the export of genetically engineered soybeans mixed with natural soybeans. This comes at the request of the all-powerful Monsanto Corporation, which developed "transgenic soybeans" to tolerate huge doses of Monsanto's Roundup pesticide. Ergo, "Roundup Ready Soybeans." The United States has taken a similarly aggressive posture in support of overseas distribution of Monsanto's rBGH, a hormone stimulant for the dairy industry.

The way the Democrats and the green bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., tell the story, it's the rape-and-pillage Republicans who are now sabotaging efforts to save the ozone layer. Methyl bromide lies at the heart of many of the problems associated with chemical-intensive farming, as well as with ozone depletion. It's a gas used as a fumigant in preparation of fields for crops such as strawberries, tomatoes, and tobacco.

The fumigant is classified as among the most deadly toxins in agro-industrial use, which is why both the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters support bans on its use and production. Long-term exposure to nonlethal doses causes seizures, respiratory ailments, cancer, and birth defects. When methyl bromide escapes into the atmosphere, it steadily shreds the ozone layer, admitting ultraviolet radiation.

The Clinton Administration's desperate fight to win ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement offered the methyl-bromide lobby its best opportunity after years of failure during the Bush era. As they scraped the barrel for every vote, Clinton and his trade rep, Mickey Kantor, met with a block of twenty California and Florida Representatives prepared to withhold their "yes" votes until they extracted a promise from the Administration to take another look at the methyl-bromide situation. Kantor sealed the deal in a letter to the Florida Growers Association: "I have spoken with Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and I want to assure you that the Administration recognizes the potential harm to your industry and others unless a satisfactory solution is found, and the President has asked me to assure you that this effort will be given a very high priority." Kantor concluded with a pledge that as a last resort the President would "guarantee that agricultural producers are not left without commercially viable means" to use methyl bromide.

In an Environmental Assessment issued in 1994, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service duly ratified the use of methyl bromide for the purpose of gassing imported logs that might be infected with exotic pests.

By this time the retreat was pell-mell. In Vienna in December 1995, the Clinton Administration led an assault on the Montreal Protocol target dates, over angry objections from many other signatories, particularly Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. At American instigation, the 2001 cut-off date for production and use of ethyl bromide was shifted back to 2010. with a loophole that will allow exemptions for "essential uses" after that date (i.e., for strawberries, tomatoes, and timber). For developing nations, deadlines on production and use were eliminated altogether, thus assuring a long-term future for chemical agriculture south of the border.

It was, of course, the Washington-based green lobbying groups that rallied to Clinton in his NAFTA fight, brandishing the "side agreements" that dropped from view as soon as the battle was won. John Adams, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, boasted that this coalition had "broken the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA."

It only remained for the House Republicans to lend the Democrats political over. Tom DeLay, the Republican majority whip and a former pest exterminator in Texas, announced that the ozone hole was a media myth and that any impediment to the use of methyl bromide should be swept aside. This is what permitted Assistant Director of the EPA Mary Nichols (a former executive at the Natural Resources Defense Council) to proclaim that the only way to head off DeLay and the Republican ultras was to surrender what little ground on methyl bromide had not already been given up.

"We're ready," Nichols testified before the House Commerce Committee on January 26, "to work with stakeholders to craft an appropriate safety valve that would permit application for `essential-use' exemptions. We'll support a legislative remedy to this effect." In other words, the Clinton Administration is now setting the stage for a permanent exemption for methyl bromide from the Clean Air Act.

For fifteen years the United States has maintained an absolute ban on the production and importation of polychlorinated biphenyls - familiarly known as PCBs, an extremely toxic chemical used as an industrial lubricant and a fire retardant in electric transformers. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer, liver damage, and other health disorders. In the Great Lakes region alone, more than 40,000 people will die from eating PCB-laced fish.

Under pressure from Democrats in Congress, the Clinton Administration has reversed the long-standing U.S. ban on the importation of PCBs, tearing the guts out of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which prohibited international trade in hazardous materials. By doing so it has revived a lethal incineration industry that was on its last legs. The big U.S. hazardous waste incineration companies faced a seemingly inexorable deadline: a falling supply of PCBs, as the lethal inventory steadily diminished.

But thanks to NAFTA, Ohio Democrats, and the all-powerful U.S. Department of Commerce, this supply-side crisis has now been solved. As of November 22, 1995, the United States became a PCB-importing nation. The incinerators will be fed deadly PCBs and spew out even deadlier dioxin.

On that day, the Canadian government, which had long fought against the idea, succumbed to fierce U.S. pressure and allowed Canadian firms to start trucking PCB-contaminated materials south to Tallmadge, Ohio, where the PCBs are extracted from electrical capacitors, placed in tankards, and shipped to an incinerator outside Cincinnati.

Having thus tested the waters, the U.S. government is now ready to open its southern border to the infinitely more lucrative supply from Mexico, where an estimated 20,000 tons of PCBs are already available and where PCB production is still lawful.

For five years the S.D. Myers Company pleaded with the EPA to grant an exemption from the Toxic Substances Control Act, allowing the company to import PCBs to its Tallmadge "decontamination" facility outside Akron. The EPA had consistently denied all such requests, including the most recent one in March 1995. At this point the Ohio Congressional delegation led by Senator John Glenn and Congressman Tom Sawyer (both Democrats) went to work on behalf of S.D. Myers, which expected to make nearly $100 million a year from the enterprise. Sawyer and Glenn went directly to Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who speedily convinced EPA director Carol Browner of the error of her ways.

By November of last year, S.D. Myers had its waiver. The next task was to overwhelm Canadian resistance. Canadian greens were not eager to see PCBs being trucked around their country, and the Canadian government wanted to protect its own PCB-disposal industry. The Clinton Administration duly hauled in Sheila Copps, Canada's minister of the environment, and informed her that her government's stance created an unfair barrier to free trade. The Canadian government gave in. Not a single story on the end of the PCB ban appeared in any U.S. newspaper until the newsletter CounterPunch broke the story. Dr. Paul Connett, a leading PCB expert based at St. Lawrence University, called the importation of PCBs for incinerators "outrageous and dangerous," and predicted it would destroy key provisions of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The role of the Big Green groups has gone far beyond mere cover-up for the Clinton Administration. They have been busy instilling as national environmental policy the neoliberal philosophy first articulated by Stephen Breyer, Clinton's appointee to the Supreme Court. When Breyer worked for Teddy Kennedy back in the late 1970s, he attacked the notion of straightforward rules and laws inhibiting industry from polluting the environment. Breyer argued that a system of inducements, credits, easements, financial compensations, and rewards would be more efficient, and that there should be no absolute prohibitions against some measure of pollution and carcinogens.

This line in neoliberal thinking was seized upon by the Environmental Defense Fund in the Bush years, and was installed into law in the Clean Air Act of 1990, which allowed pollution credits to be traded on the commodities market right next to the cattle futures that netted Hillary Rodham Clinton such a tidy bundle.

Throughout the Clinton years, green politicos from the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute who subscribe to the Breyer philosophy have been hunkering down, under the auspices of the Council on Sustainable Development, with CEOs from Chevron, Dow Chemical, and Georgia-Pacific to find "common ground" - the devising of laws and regulations sufficiently toothless to satisfy the rape-and-pillage crowd.

The Council issued its report in early 1996 under the triumphant banner of "what's good for business is good for the environment." Their report concludes: "Pollution is waste, waste is inefficient, and inefficiency is expensive."

This is precisely how twentieth-century environmentalism was born, in the conservationism of Teddy Roosevelt and the philosophy of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service. Efficiency meant the rational capitalist exploitation by big corporations of America's resources, with the backing of the government. Pinchot rolled the preservationist John Muir. Now Clinton, Gore, and the Big Greens are rolling grassroots organizations and the poor old bamboozled American public, who hope against hope that someone up there is looking after the planet.
COPYRIGHT 1996 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:St. Clair, Jeffrey
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1996
Previous Article:Pooh-poohing populist discontent.
Next Article:Go knock on some doors; Bernie Sanders sounds off.

Related Articles
Climate change in Washington.
Wrong way Congress: in two years, President Bill Clinton has signed fewer environmental laws than George Bush.
Practicing what they preach.
Slimed again.
Don't be fooled again.
Snip, snip: cutting planet-plundering government programs with Green Scissors.
Planting Seeds.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters