Air Date: April 21, 1995
Savvy Sixth Graders: Young Citizens Purchase E.P.A. Pollution Credits/ Robin Finesmith
Through bake sales and band concerts, one sixth grade class in upstate New York recently raised $3,000. What did they do with the funds they raised? The class bought the rights to 21 tons of air polluting chemicals. Their purchase helps prevents the chemicals from being emitted by polluting industries. Robin Finesmith from Living on Earth's Midwest bureau at WCPN-FM in Cleveland has this report. (06:15)
What's Up on the Hill?/ Tim Noah
Tim Noah of the Wall Street Journal speaks with host Steve Curwood about President Clinton's lack of true commitment on environmental protection issues, and how legislation pending in Congress will affect the environment. (06:06)
LOE Profile #1: Lois Gibbs, fighting Spirit Behind the Love Canal Evacuation/ Terry Fitzpatrick
In 1980, Lois Gibbs was an unsuspecting mother living in a blue collar community in upstate New York when her children became seriously ill. Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU-FM in Seattle explores the work of this housewife turned outspoken activist and her fight against toxic waste. (04:57)
Earth Day at 25 Years: Nothing New/ Michael Silverstein
Commentator Michael Silverstein remarks on the disappointing lack of U.S. governmental leadership or innovative thinking on Earth Day this year. (02:59)
Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Tom Bonsey, Terry Ward, Robin Finesmith, Terry Fitzpatrick
GUEST: Tim Noah
COMMENTATOR: Michael Silverstein
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
As conservatives on Capitol Hill push to cut back on environmental regulation, pundits predict they won't get much resistance from President Clinton.
NOAH: I don't believe that the President has much of a commitment to these issues. I don't think he has any terrific opposition to environmental issues, but I don't think he's really engaged by environmental issues.
CURWOOD: Also, Lois Gibbs, who became famous fighting the toxic dump at Love Canal - she says environmental advocates lose unless they can mobilize voters.
GIBBS: Government doesn't respond to the fact that people are dying. that's almost irrelevant. It's predicted; that's what risk assessments are about. What government responds to is political clout.
CURWOOD: That and more on Living on Earth, right after this news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Property rights initiatives are gaining ground around the country. In the first 100 days of the session, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring government to pay land owners when regulation decreases the value of their land. Washington State law makers have just enacted a similar law, and while the state's Democratic governor is powerless to stop the citizen-initiated bill, opponents of the new takings law are gearing up their own petition drive to force a repeal vote. Tom Bonsey of the Northwest Public Affairs Network reports.
BONSEY: Washington State's new property rights law requires government to pay land owners for property value loss due to regulations. It also requires that any time government attempt to limit land use, it must choose the least burdensome method of regulation. Supporters of the law tapped into feelings that government has gone too far in regulating land use. Republican State Senator Ann Anderson.
ANDERSON: In the system we have now, is that governments can write any regulation that they want to, because they know they're not obligated to compensate in any way. Human nature is when it's free; hey, take more. Stuff your pockets full.
BONSEY: Washington's property rights law takes effect in July unless foes gather enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November. Opponents claim the property law will force government to either raise taxes to pay off developers or stop enforcing desirable environmental and zoning laws. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Bonsey in Olympia, Washington.
NUNLEY: A Federal Judge has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to let a Virginia company sell a fuel additive designed to make gasoline cleaner. The EPA had blocked the sale of the manganese-based additive MMT because of potential public health risks. But the court ruled the Agency cannot consider health effects when deciding whether to grant such waivers. The judge said the agency can only consider emission effects of the additive. But the Agency has found a procedural way around the court's decision, refusing to list it as okay for use in unleaded gasoline. The maker of MMT, Ethyl Corporation, is suing the EPA to register the product.
Arizona Governor Fife Symington has signed legislation allowing freon and other chlorofluorocarbons to be produced in the state. The move is one in a series of efforts by Arizona law makers to defy Federal mandates. From KJZZ in Phoenix, Terry Ward reports.
WARD: Governor Symington and members of the Republican-controlled state legislature have targeted a number of Federal programs for review in Arizona, among them, the Endangered Species Act and Federal Clean Air laws. But legislation lifting the ban on CFCs is the first to be signed by the Governor. Symington says the ban is based on what he calls hoakey science.
SYMINGTON: I think that the ban on CFCs is a perfect example of liberal extreme environmentalism, which has done great harm to our economy.
WARD: The move is considered largely symbolic, since it goes against both Federal and international treaty. But Symington says it sends a message that Arizona isn't satisfied with Washington's approach to environmental protection. The manufacture of CFCs will be outlawed in most Western nations effective January 1. Scientists say the chemicals are depleting the Earth's protective ozone layer. For Living on Earth, this is Terry Ward in Phoenix.
NUNLEY: An agreement between Canada and Spain over fishing rights ends a 5-week standoff and may serve as a global model for preserving fishing grounds. That's according to Sacha Nandan, chair of the UN's Conference on Fishing Stocks, who says the pact is a good precedent for nations. The deal calls for independent observers to be on board any ship fishing the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. Also, satellites will be used to track fishing fleets. Officials believe this combination will curtail illegal fishing practices, but Roger McManus of the Center for Marine Conservation wonders how many nations will go along with plans like this one.
McMANUS: There is a great reluctance to eliminate or sharply curtail the amount of fish that we're taking out of the ocean, and there is reluctance on the part of independent nations to submit themselves to international authorities to ensure that rules that they agree to are being enforced.
NUNLEY: The proposal is expected to be approved by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization next month. It still must be ratified by the 15 nations of the European Union.
Malibu Barbie may want to spend less time having fun in the sun. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission charged toy maker Mattel with advertising its Barbie Bath Blast Fashion Foam Soap as environmentally safe, when the soap in fact contained 2 ozone-depleting chemicals. The company has stopped selling the product and has agreed to base future claims on reliable scientific evidence. The move was part of the FTC's continuing crackdown on advertising that makes false environmental claims. It's the 29th such case the Agency has pursued since it released green advertising guidelines 3 years ago.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In today's program, we're going to learn how a 6th grade class in upstate New York is preventing pollution from acid rain. And if you're wondering how they're doing this, yes it is another one of those cases where it seems like the kids are ahead of the grownups. During the Bush Administration, the Clean Air Act was changed so that big power plants get a limited number of permits to emit sulfur dioxide, which can cause acid rain. If companies clean up their pollution faster than they have to and don't use all of their pollution allowances, they can save them up or even sell them on the open market to other polluting companies. But anybody, even 6th graders, can buy the permits and keep them out of the hands of polluters. From Living on Earth's bureau at WCPN in Cleveland, Robin Finesmith has our story.
(Stock exchange floor: a bell rings amidst frantic voices)
FINESMITH: At the Chicago Board of Trade, soybeans are selling at about $6 a bushel, and pork bellies around 40 cents a pound.
(Voices calling. A man speaks: "In spot auction, the highest bid price we received was $350; the lowest was $1. The average...")
FINESMITH: Meanwhile, in a board room 6 floors up, sulfur dioxide is running at about $130 a ton. Most of the bidders are large electric utilities who purchase the credits from the EPA as part of the Clean Air Act. But one investor is 12-year-old Breanna Cowen, who has traveled from Glens Falls, New York, to represent her 6th grade class.
COWEN: There is a picture of a really nice statue in an area and it, like, fell apart. It was demented looking. (Laughs.) It was pretty bad looking. I mean, if acid rain can do that to a statue, think of what it can do to, you know, something else.
FINESMITH: Cowen is describing the effects of acid rain, which has damaged dozens of lakes in New York's Adirondack Mountains where she lives. Her class got to see first-hand the effects of acid rain when they collected samples from their own back yards.
COWEN: Well, we got results like, um, 7.0 is neutral, which means it's perfectly fine water. We didn't get any, I don't think any of those. The lowest we got was 3.0, which is horribly acidic, and the most commonly ones were 4.5s, which isn't very good, either.
FINESMITH: Water that acidic can degrade forests and wildlife along with statues and gravestones. So, with tangible evidence of acid rain in hand, Breanna and her classmates looked for an equally tangible solution. Through bake sales and band concerts, the class raised over $3,000 to buy the rights to 21 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution, the source of acid rain. Cowen's bid for the allowances was placed by the National Healthy Air License Exchange, or INHALE, which will permanently retire the emission allowances so they can never be used. David Webster is the president and founder of INHALE. He says this is one of the most concrete ways of protecting the environment.
WEBSTER: If you have to go into a lobbying campaign or if you have to go into a litigation fight, the results are not guaranteed. When you buy one of these allowances, you know what's going to happen to it. It's a very direct, guaranteed way to have an impact on the environment.
FINESMITH: Utilities are issued a certain number of emissions credits each year, but they don't get enough to cover the total amount of sulfur dioxide they're permitted to release under the 1990 Clean Air Act. Companies can buy more credits, up to the legal limit. Or if it's cheaper, they can adopt new technology to reduce their emissions to begin with. As with other commodities, anyone can buy these allowances, and the EPA says it has no objections to INHALE taking credits off the market just to prevent them from being used. In fact, the Director of the EPA's Acid Rain Program, Brian McLean, gave Cowen's class a special plaque commending their purchase. Still, McLean says, so far INHALE's net effect on pollution is mostly symbolic.
McLEAN: They don't add up to a lot on a percentage basis. But if a lot of schools or a lot of groups decided to do this, it could have some effect on the total number that's available. So instead of a 50% reduction in emissions it might be a 51% reduction. I mean, it could have that kind of an impact.
FINESMITH: INHALE executive director Dan Jaffee says even that small of a reduction can have a large impact on the environment. He estimates that the $3,000 purchase by Glens Falls Middle School will save over $84,000 in environmental and health-related costs. But for Interior Energy of Cleveland, which was outbid by Cowen's middle school class, there are other costs to consider when allowances are taken off the market. Elizabeth Shaw is Interior's Environmental and Safety Director.
SHAW: If for whatever reason sufficient emission allowances were not available for us to continue to use our coal plants as they're currently configured, then we would have to invest in a more expensive technology such as a scrubber, or such as burning natural gas or something like that. And if the allowance market went away, that would merely drive up the price of what it will cost us to generate the energy for our customers. In the long run, the customers are the ones who pay.
FINESMITH: For that matter, some criticize any participation in the allowance market on the grounds that it's immoral to treat air pollution as a commodity to be bought and sold. INHALE replies that yes, in an ideal world the emissions market wouldn't be necessary, but as long as it does exist environmentalists might as well use it to their advantage. As for the ultimate effects of sulfur dioxide reductions brought about by the allowance market, INHALE founder Dave Webster says we should be able to literally see results by the year 2000.
WEBSTER: The EPA has said that at the end of the cleanup that's going to be mandated under this program, there are going to be 30% more stars. Sulfur dioxide blocks out the stars, and really is a big factor in decreasing visibility. Thirty percent more stars everywhere.
FINESMITH: Webster says every sulfur dioxide allowance that industry can't use will bring that goal a little closer, and he hopes INHALE can remove 10% of the pollution permits from the market over the next few years. As for the market itself, the United Nations is beginning to consider the creation of a global environmental commodities exchange modeled after the one currently in play on the Chicago Board of Trade. Meanwhile, the students of Glens Falls Middle School hope to double their purchase of sulfur dioxide allowances next year, and they'll have help from Breanna Cowen, too, even though she'll have moved on to the 7th grade. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.
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CURWOOD: The conservative Republican drive in Congress to scale back government is deep into the environment. They've already passed laws that freeze new listings under the Endangered Species Act and limit Federal mandates that cost the states money to enforce. But the House Republicans are now running into some opposition over more controversial proposals. One bill would halt all new Federal rules. Another would pay private property owners if environmental laws cut the value of their land. And a third would open more wetlands for development. Tim Noah reports for the Wall Street Journal's Washington Bureau, and he's been keeping an eye on environmental legislation.
NOAH: There's a big movement in Congress to slow down on the environment, and I think to some extent they're responding to a popular movement outside of Congress, certainly among businesspeople.
CURWOOD: Now this movement started, really, very quickly with a call for a moratorium on all new Federal regulations. The House passed that, but the Senate has passed a version that's much more moderate.
NOAH: As expected, there wasn't really a lot of strong support in the Senate for this idea. And so Senator Don Nickles substituted a measure, and under that measure whenever a Federal agency issued a regulation, Congress would be given 45 days to legislate that the regulation not take effect.
CURWOOD: That sounds more like a legislative veto rather than a ban, really, on regulations.
NOAH: It's like a 2-house legislative veto, and you could argue that except for a couple of mechanisms that have been added it is essentially what Congress is free to do right now.
CURWOOD: So, which outcome do you think is likely? The house version or this more moderate Senate view?
NOAH: If I were a betting man I would say that the Senate version is likely to prevail.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about the Clean Water Act. This is something that the House really would like to have a lot of changes in, especially the part that deals with wetlands reform. Now, going back into the Bush Administration, there was an effort to change the definition of wetlands, and the call then was for sound science about what a wetland should or shouldn't be. And I understand a report on that from the National Academy of Sciences is due out fairly soon. Yet the House seems to want to get the legislation through before the report comes out.
NOAH: Well, they not only want to but did get the bill out of committee before the report was available. In general, this has been a simmering dispute for many years; there are a number of people who feel that wetlands regulation is far too strict. That there are a number of things that ordinarily would not be considered wetlands that get characterized as wetlands in Federal regulation. And the election in November provided an opportunity for the opponents of wetlands regulation to get in some very strong language rolling back wetlands regulation in the Clean Water Act. Although I should add that about half the Democrats on the House Transportation Committee voted for this, this very strong bill.
CURWOOD: Is the Senate likely to go along with this fast track in advance of the scientific report?
NOAH: No, and that may be why you saw so much support in the House committee. It's a free vote. Because when this bill lands in the Senate Environment Committee, I think you'll find that Senator John Chaffee, the Chairman of that committee, who's a staunch environmentalist, is going to want to substantially modify the language in the bill.
CURWOOD: Now, let's talk about how these bills are being drafted. Some of the environmental activists are complaining that industry and the private property interests are helping to draft this legislation. Is that true, and is that inappropriate?
NOAH: Certain, it is true that on this bill as well as a number of bills, you're seeing a very strong input by business groups, much stronger than you saw before. And I think it's also true that you've seen special interest groups, liberal special interest groups show strong influence in previous times. Clearly, the fact that the Congress is now Republican means that those oppose environmental regulation are going to have a lot more clout than environmental groups are. Environmental groups did not have a terrific amount of clout even before the election. Now, is that unfair? I think the real question is, is the bill good legislation or is it bad legislation? And you are coincidentally hearing a lot of Democrats in the Clinton Administration assert that quite a lot of what's rocketing through Congress these days is bad legislation.
CURWOOD: The Clinton Administration is really just beginning to hit back on some of these environmental issues. Do you think they waited too long?
NOAH: They certainly waited a long time to push environmental issues in general, and I - I think that has to do with the fact that I don't believe that the President has much of a commitment to these issues. I don't think he has any terrific opposition to environmental issues, but I don't think he's really engaged by environmental issues.
CURWOOD: So what you're saying is that President Clinton isn't likely to stand in the way of the Republican effort to deregulate much of the environmental laws, unless he sees a real political advantage. And I'm wondering if the Clean Water Act might offer that kind of political advantage the way that, say, the Republican efforts to revise the school lunch program has.
NOAH: Well it might. And I should add, I mean to be fair, the White House has gotten much more aggressive lately on these issues. But yes, you're right; I mean I think for the Clinton Administration to get aggressive on a number of these issues, they're going to have to determine that there is some political advantage to doing so.
CURWOOD: Tim Noah covers the environment for the Wall Street Journal in Washington.
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CURWOOD: In honor of the 25th anniversary of Earth Day this year, Living on Earth is beginning a series profiling 25 particularly intriguing people who have made a difference in the environmental movement. We begin our report this week with a look at Lois Gibbs. She's not quite a household name, but Lois Gibbs achieved something extraordinary as a homeowner turned activist. She organized her community to fight the Love Canal toxic dump site, sparking a nationwide movement against toxic waste. Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU in Seattle has our story.
(Busy office: phones ringing, voices talking. A man answers the phone: "Good afternoon, Toxics Coalition...")
FITZPATRICK: The office of the Washington Toxics Coalition in Seattle is thousands of miles from the Love Canal dump site in Niagara Falls, New York. But what happened at Love Canal 15 years ago, when a community rose up to fight an industrial dump, has shaped what's happening here today. This group is one of thousands fighting to keep toxic contamination out of neighborhoods. At this meeting, staffers are planning an educational campaign for Earth Day.
(Woman: "Reduced sperm, increased cancer, increased asthma..." Another woman: "Birth defects." First woman: "Birth defects. There's a whole laundry list of, like, 6 really scary and alarming statistics about health effects on the increase." Third woman: "I'd like to have something more focused, too, on inner-city health problems. Our message is really more...")
FITZPATRICK: This focus on human health and blue collar neighborhoods is inspired by the experiences of Lois Gibbs.
SMITH: Lois actually brought the toxics issues into people's living room.
FITZPATRICK: Cha Smith of the Washington Toxics Coalition.
SMITH: The environmental movement, until that time, had been much more the Sierra Club calendar kind of thing of we're going to protect wildlife and we're going to protect these wilderness places that are somewhere else.
FITZPATRICK: But for Lois Gibbs, that "somewhere else" was her back yard. She lived 3 blocks away from an unmonitored industrial dump site. Her children were developing blood diseases and immune disorders. Nobody seemed able to help.
GIBBS: When we first found out about Love Canal, we called a lot of the traditional environmental groups: Sierra Club, NRDC, and we asked them how do we - how do we go about fixing this problem? Our kids are sick. And they had no clue. They knew about passing regulations, they knew about lawsuits to enforce regulations. But they had no clue what you should do if your community group and you are faced with an immediate problem. And as a result, we had to learn how to fight back, how to get relocation and clean up of the site, from the seat of our pants essentially.
FITZPATRICK: Researchers found widespread chromosomal damage among Love Canal residents. But Federal officials were reluctant to take action. So, Gibbs organized her neighbors and turned up the heat on President Jimmy Carter. They dogged his reelection rallies with picket signs.
GIBBS: Government doesn't respond to the fact that people are dying. that's almost irrelevant. It's predicted; that's what risk assessments are about. What government responds to is political clout.
FITZPATRICK: To gain clout, Gibbs employed theatrical tactics designed to win media attention, even holding 2 EPA staffers hostage for a day. Finally, President Carter gave in, ordering an evacuation of the neighborhood. Toxics had risen to the forefront of environmental awareness. The Superfund was created to clean up contamination nationwide. Today, Gibbs teaches her tactics to community groups through her organization, the Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes.
GIBBS: Most of the communities that are faced with environmental threats today are low-income, rural, or communities of color. And so what we do is we don't organize people about how toxic is toxic, how many people are going to die, but rather we talk to them about how do you gain political clout? Our strategy is put names and faces on people who have the power to make change, and then do whatever you need to do to make that person do it.
FITZPATRICK: Gibbs is a hero to many, but she has not won universal praise. Business interests dismiss her as chemo-phobic, and even some environmentalists view her tenacity as counterproductive in a political culture built on compromise. But Gibbs is undaunted, saying her focus on local action is vital now that the environmental movement has lost some of its national influence on Capitol Hill.
GIBBS: People get bought into the idea that you have to be one voice in DC to make change, and that's just not true. If a group has a constituency that's active, they are powerful, and people's collective power is working locally to effect change nationally.
FITZPATRICK: Lois Gibbs of the Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.
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CURWOOD: Give us your nominees for the 25 most intriguing people in the environmental arena. He or she could be a national figure or a local one. Write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Our Internet address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Or give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. If you want a transcript or a tape, send a check for $10.
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CURWOOD: April 22nd, 1995: the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. And according to commentator Michael Silverstein, an equal opportunity moment of déjà vu for liberals and conservatives alike.
SILVERSTEIN: Has this Earth Day reminded you of Groundhog Day? In that popular movie, Bill Murray relived the same day in the same way, because he refused to change his jaundiced view of life. Public debate about the environment on Earth Day 1995 has had a similar repetitive and unevolved quality. A quarter of a century ago, our political establishment led the world when it came to environmental issues. Today, it trails the thinking both of the American public and the American business community in this realm.
Most Americans believe economic growth and environmental protection are compatible goals. Many of this country's largest corporations have come to the same conclusion. Only in official Washington do decades out of date environmental perspectives still flourish. Here, liberal ecobabble and conservative ecobashing still fill the air.
Considering this exotic Beltway brew, the Clinton Administration's use of Earth Day as a launching pad for its sustainable development initiative. The great promoters of sustainable development theory are central planners in the UN and World Bank bureaucracies: people with about as much popularity among Americans these days as deer ticks and property taxes. Who but Clinton and Gore could see in this idea and these institutions models for ecological salvation?
Conservative irrelevance this Earth Day has certainly been a match for its liberal counterpart. Attempts to paralyze enforcement of environmental regulations embodied in the Republican Contract with America show an amazing ignorance of historic links between environmental protection and economic growth. Twenty-five years ago was not only when the United States celebrated its first Earth Day. It was when ecologists and economists in the Soviet Union were warning their government that ecological systems had to be protected from massive emissions. The decades of regulation that began around 1970 destroyed the US economy? Of course not. Did failure to regulate undermine the public health, the natural ecology, and the economy of the old Soviet Union? Without question. Such realities, alas, find no place in the anti-regulation thinking of today's American conservatives.
A quarter of a century should have made this year's Earth Day a glorious celebration linking Gaia and Mammon, Rachel Carson and Adam Smith. Instead, we see Punxsatawney Phil in eco-drag, spooked by the shadows of Earth Days past. In consequence, you need not worry about sleeping through this Earth Day. By now hearing the rhetoric rising form the Potomac, you won't miss a thing you haven't heard over and over and over and over...
CURWOOD: Michael Silverstein comes to us from WHYY in Philadelphia. His latest book is called The Environmental Economic Revolution.
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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our producer and editor is Peter Thomson. Our production staff includes Deborah Stavro, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, and Constantine Von Hoffman. Also on the team are Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Alex Garcia-Rangel, and Jessika Bella Mura. Our WBUR engineers are Louis Cronin and Keith Shields. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Special thanks to Jeff Martine.
Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
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