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
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.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg
Sen. Joseph Lieberman
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio)
Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr.
Rep. Henry Waxman
Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.)
Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.)
Sen. Christopher Bond
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.)
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)
Sen. Trent Lott
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
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
To Protect Wetlands and Prevent Floods
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.)
Rep. Earl Blumenauer
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert
Rep. Dick Gephardt
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest
Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.)
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson
Rep. Ann Northrup (R-Ky)
Rep. Ron Packard
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
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.)
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.)
Rep. Larry Combest
Rep. Charlie Stenholm
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
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
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.)
Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney
Rep. Jim Saxton
Sen. Slade Gorton
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
Sen. James Jeffords
Rep. Peter DeFazio
Rep. George Miller
Rep. Nick Rahall
Rep. Bruce F. Vento
Sen. Conrad Burns
Sen. Larry Craig
Sen. Slade Gorton
Sen. Frank Murkowski
Sen. Harry Reid
Rep. Jim Gibbons
Rep. Don Young
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
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
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.