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Sierra Magazine
Why Vote?

Voting isn't just about who gets to move into the White House or a fancy office on Capitol Hill. What we do at the polls makes a real difference in the lives of ordinary people, like the five profiled here. They and their communities depend on us to shift control of Congress from the current environmental zeroes to the legislative heroes.

By Jennifer Hattam

Clean Cities | Protect Wetlands | Factory Farms | Wild Salmon | Mining Pollution

To Clean Up the Cities
James Williams was alarmed when he saw black smoke pouring out of the hospital incinerator across the street from his Detroit home. The medical-waste incinerator at Henry Ford Hospital was installed in the early 1980s and has been emitting poisons-including mercury, lead, cadmium, and dioxins-into the predominantly African-American Virginia Park area ever since. A few miles north of downtown Detroit, Virginia Park has one of Michigan's highest rates of childhood asthma, which is exacerbated by air pollution and may even be caused by prenatal exposure to dioxin.

HEROES
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg
(D-N.J.)
Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(D-Conn.)
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio)
Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr.
(D-N.J.)
Rep. Henry Waxman
(D-Calif.)

ZEROES
Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.)
Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.)
Sen. Christopher Bond
(R-Mo.)
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.)
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)
Sen. Trent Lott
(R-Miss.)
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio)

Heroes have fought to strengthen the Clean Air Act, clean up Superfund sites, and redevelop brownfield areas in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Zeroes have challenged environmental-justice legislation every step of the way.

Williams, a Virginia Park resident since 1965, was enraged to find out that two hospitals owned by the same company in the white suburbs voluntarily dispose of their waste in cleaner ways. He attributes the difference to "racism." But, he adds, "Henry Ford Health Systems never estimated what we could do to fight the incinerator." Contrary to the company's expectations, the community rallied to demand safer waste disposal.

Sweet Home Baptist Church, right across the street from the hospital, displayed a huge banner saying, "Stop Smoking, Henry Ford! Shut Down Your Incinerator." Similar signs popped up in front yards and along the expressway, while local residents picketed the hospital in the evenings. "When Henry Ford saw the pure pressure from the community, they saw it was a losing battle," says Williams. In February, the hospital agreed to shut down its incinerator.

Unfortunately, not every community is lucky enough to have an organizer like James Williams. That's why we need politicians who will protect people, not polluters, by enforcing (and strengthening) the Clean Air Act and supporting inner-city communities' calls for environmental justice. What we don't need are weak regulations like those in Texas, where industry participation in many environmental programs is voluntary. Texas ranks first in the nation in the number of hazardous-waste incinerators and industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and mercury (see "The Polluters' President," November/December 1999). If that's what Governor Bush has allowed to happen to his home state, imagine what President Bush would do for Detroit-and the rest of the country.


To Protect Wetlands and Prevent Floods

HEROES
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.)
Rep. Earl Blumenauer
(D-Ore.)
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert
(R-N.Y.)
Rep. Dick Gephardt
(D-Mo.)
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest
(R-Md.)

ZEROES
Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.)
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson
(R-Mo.)
Rep. Ann Northrup (R-Ky)
Rep. Ron Packard
(R-Calif.)



The above members of Congress were either leaders or laggards in efforts to protect wetlands, limit floodplain sprawl, or assist flood victims.

A wetland protected Doris Wilson's property for 21 years, but until her house flooded, she didn't know what a wetland really was. "I had heard people say that swamps were nuisances, because they bred mosquitoes, but I never heard about their benefits," says Wilson, a schoolteacher from Prospect, Kentucky.

In 1996 NTS Development built the Sutherland luxury-home subdivision on a three-acre wetland near Wilson's lot. Later that year, she noticed that her yard was always full of water, even when it hadn't rained. "Before they started draining that wetland, the water had someplace to stay," Wilson says. "But now it's all brick and mortar there, so where else does the water have to go?"

The problem got progressively worse until a heavy rainstorm in March 1997 flooded her basement and covered her entire front yard. Wilson and her son had to move out of their home for a month while their basement was repaired and their furnace replaced. The basement continues to flood periodically, and her insurance deductible has soared. "Developers need to stop and think before they decide to destroy wetlands," Wilson says. "Wetlands truly do protect our homes."

An acre of wetlands can store up to 1.6 million gallons of floodwater. Nonetheless, from 1988 to 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers approved 99 percent of the applications for wetland-development permits. In June, the Corps finally responded to a long campaign by environmentalists and stopped issuing the most destructive of these, under "Permit 26." This type of permit allowed isolated wetlands of up to ten acres to be destroyed with no public notice or environmental review. Because of this change in policy, the Corps faces a lawsuit from the National Association of Homebuilders and opposition from Representative Ron Packard (R-Calif.), who introduced (but later withdrew) a rider to the House energy and water appropriations bill that would have blocked implementation of a new, less destructive permitting system.

Meanwhile, the White House has proposed new guidelines for federal construction along rivers, coastlines, and wetlands. Under the guidelines, the Army Corps and other federal agencies would have to assess the potential environmental damages before going ahead with levees, dams, and other water projects. Some members of Congress from Mississippi River states, led by Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), have already come out against the proposal. Unless strong opponents to the drain-and-dam fan club are elected to Congress and the White House, the proposal's chances are slim-and the damage both to environment and property will continue.


To Stop the Spread of Factory Farms

HEROES
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.)
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.)

ZEROES
Rep. Larry Combest
(R-Tex.)
Rep. Charlie Stenholm
(D-Tex.)

Federal legislation on factory farms has been sparse. The heroes tried to tighten up EPA and USDA regulations on these big livestock operations; the zeroes tried to make them even more lax.

"Spring around here is normally a time for freshness and new growth," says Terry Spence, a farmer near Unionville, Missouri. "Now, when you wake up, you get hit in the face with an odor that makes you vomit. It really takes the beauty out of the world."

The culprit? A huge hog factory in the center of Spence's rural community, about three miles from the farm where he was born and raised. In 1994 Premium Standard Farms selected the area for a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). When Spence and others on the township board created buffer zones between the facility and residential areas, Premium Standard sued them for $7.9 million. The company dropped its monetary demands, Spence says, after the press panned "this big corporation suing this itty-bitty township." But the township lost the case, succeeding only in limiting the facility to 80,000 hogs, 72 buildings, and nine large animal-waste "lagoons"-about half the size Premium Standard wanted.

"This isn't farming," Spence says. "They don't put on their overalls and cowboy boots and work gloves. These are white-collar guys who don't know a thing about the rural areas they invest in and couldn't care less about the families that have lived here all their lives." Spence mostly raises cattle on his 400-acre farm, but he watches what's happening to local pig farmers with alarm. "If you're not contracting with one of these corporations, you don't have access to the market," he says. "They drive the prices down, so we're losing small hog farmers."

Township residents now regularly monitor local streams, where they are reporting high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and nitrates. The state is still studying the health effects of these contaminants, but the economic impacts of CAFOs are already clear. "All of our ag-related businesses-feed stores, hardware stores-are dying out," Spence says. "Everything that Premium Standard buys comes from out of state, and all its income is going right back out."

Last year, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the first legislation calling for national environmental standards for animal-waste management. With scant support in Congress, his bill went nowhere. But electing environmental allies to office can make a difference: State legislators in Missouri and Oklahoma are considering bills that would regulate CAFOs as "industrial facilities," not farms. Meanwhile, the EPA is looking at strengthening federal rules on CAFO wastewater disposal, a process that could be quickly squelched by an industry-friendly administration.


To Save Wild Salmon

HEROES
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.)
Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney
(D-Ga.)
Rep. Jim Saxton
(R-N.J.)

ZEROES
Sen. Slade Gorton
(R-Wash.)




Wild salmon depend on intact forests, the decommissioning of killer dams, and laws that protect endangered species. The members of Congress above either championed or tried to torpedo such legislation.

Peter Knutsen has seen a lot of changes in the 30 years he's been fishing in Washington's Puget Sound. "Our fishing community has been devastated," says the 48-year-old fisherman. "Twenty or thirty years ago, there would be a hundred and fifty vessels out on opening night; now there are maybe twenty."

Where salmon fishermen once enjoyed sockeye, silver, and chum seasons from July through December, they can now fish only for chum, and the season lasts a scant four or five days. The reasons for the decline are almost as numerous as the fish once were. "One of the things that has really hit us hard is fish farms, which are subsidized by the destruction of wild ecosystems," says Knutsen. "One farm in Puget Sound dumps as much sewage as a million and a half people." While fish farms pollute wild salmon habitat, their escapees-more than 100,000 salmon each year-spread disease and compete for space in the diminished runs.

Knutsen and others in the Puget Sound Gillnetters Association have joined with environmentalists to save salmon-and their own livelihoods. They successfully sued the U.S. Department of Commerce to protect chinook, and are fighting to preserve the endangered-species listings and habitat through bills like the Pacific Salmon Recovery Act of 1999 (H.R. 2798), which would provide money for habitat restoration projects in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California. An environmentally bold president could make even bigger strides toward saving salmon by removing four fish-killing dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

Equally important to salmon survival, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act of 1999 (H.R. 1396) would eliminate commercial logging on federal public lands. Species like chinook and coho live in freshwater for up to a year, so they suffer the most from logging, which increases stream velocities and freshwater temperatures to inhospitable levels. By diminishing the trees and plants that limit soil erosion and absorb water, timber cutting also allows massive amounts of sediment to wash into rivers, smothering salmon eggs.

Knutsen now supplements his income with a teaching job, but many of his peers aren't so lucky. "Things are really tough for fishing families right now," Knutsen says. "Half the boats in Fisherman's Terminal haven't left for a number of years." Will there be any fishermen-or salmon-left in two years? The answer may depend on your vote on November 7.


To Stop Pollution From Mining

HEROES
Sen. James Jeffords
(R-Vt.)
Rep. Peter DeFazio
(D-Ore.)
Rep. George Miller
(D-Calif.)
Rep. Nick Rahall
(D-W.Va.)
Rep. Bruce F. Vento
(D-Minn.)




ZEROES
Sen. Conrad Burns
(R-Mont.)
Sen. Larry Craig
(R-Idaho)
Sen. Slade Gorton
(R-Wash.)
Sen. Frank Murkowski
(R-Alaska)
Sen. Harry Reid
(D-Nev.)
Rep. Jim Gibbons
(R-Nev.)
Rep. Don Young
(R-Alaska)

Should mining companies have to clean up the messes they make? Heroes said yes, zeroes said no. So far, the zeroes are winning.

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana is home to 3,200 members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. It's also home to polluted groundwater and poisonous mining waste from two massive open-pit, heap-leach gold mines (see "The New Gold Rush," July/August) just outside its boundaries.

"We've seen diminished flow in our streams, negative effects on wildlife and our medicinal and food plants, and health problems related to cyanide and arsenic," says Ina Nez Perce, a Fort Belknap resident and environmental protection manager for the tribal environmental program. Long-term exposure to low levels of cyanide has been linked to the enlargement and decreased functioning of the thyroid gland; Nez Perce says that just about every family on the reservation has a member with a thyroid problem.

The Zortman and Landusky mines, which have polluted the reservation's water and damaged sacred sites, operated for 20 years until their owner, Pegasus Gold Corporation, went bankrupt in 1998. The Landusky mine sits at the headwaters of two streams that flow into the reservation. The full impacts of the mining have not been assessed, since the company did most of the monitoring, but what is known is disturbing.

"The EPA is removing old mine tailings, which it considers hazardous waste, from a nearby site," Nez Perce says. Even so, she says, the EPA is considering using the tailings to cover up the even worse cyanide leach heaps at the Zortman and Landusky sites.

Mines would have less leeway to pollute under new rules proposed by the Department of the Interior, but the mining industry and its friends in Congress are expected to fight the changes every step of the way. Corporations are also battling the Abandoned Hardrock Mines Reclamation Act of 1999 (H.R. 395), introduced in the House by Representative George Miller (D-Calif.). The bill would require hardrock mining companies that operate on formerly public land to pay into a fund for cleaning up abandoned mines. Unless a more environmentally minded Congress gets elected in November, such reforms will probably languish in committee.

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