Bush administration lets corporate polluters back on the gravy train
By Paul Rauber
This January, the White House indignantly declared that it was reviewing the $70 million in contracts that Enron and its auditor, Andersen, had with the federal government. Budget director Mitchell Daniel said the companies' role in the largest bankruptcy in history "could reflect poorly" on their ethical standards.
Such qualms were new to the White House. Only weeks before, in the post-holiday quiet of December 27, the Bush administration had killed rules established at the end of the Clinton era forbidding the federal government from contracting with companies that were "repeated, pervasive, or significant" violators of the law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had called the rules "blacklisting." Environmentalists and labor unions called them "contractor responsibility."
The alternative-contractor irresponsibility-has made a lot of bad actors rich, according to a 1998 study by the General Accounting Office. When it examined federal contracts from 1993 and 1994, it found 80 firms with labor-law violations winning contracts worth $23 billion, and 261 companies with serious health-and-safety violations pocketing $38 billion in 1994 alone.
"Ordinary Americans work hard, pay their taxes, and play by the rules," testified AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson at hearings on the guidelines last summer. "They know that if they break the rules, there will be consequences. Why shouldn't the same be true for companies that want to be government contractors?"
Among the unnamed corporate lawbreakers cited by labor was a poultry producer that reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts despite seven worker deaths in one year, a $3.2 million fine for sexual harassment and retaliation, and a $6 million settlement for water pollution. (The AFL-CIO, sensitive to the charge of blacklisting, declined to identify the corporation in question. The facts, however, match Tyson Foods and its subsidiary, Hudson Foods.)
In his testimony, Ed Hopkins, director of environmental-quality programs at the Sierra Club, detailed how the federal school-lunch program purchased nearly $500 million worth of food from 12 companies "found to have committed multiple violations of either environmental laws or labor laws-or both." Between 1993 and 1997, for example, the pork-producer Smithfield Foods was cited for 120 pollution violations at its Tar Heel, North Carolina, plant. In December 2000, a judge found it had committed "egregious and pervasive" violations of labor law, including conspiring with the local sheriff's department to physically intimidate and assault union supporters. Yet since 1997, federal food programs have paid Smithfield $9.5 million for pork products.
Contractor-responsibility rules could have forced the feds to find a more wholesome supplier. The Bush administration's actions, however, welcome polluters and companies who mistreat workers back to the federal trough.
To see the Sierra Club's report, "Spoiled Lunch," go to www.sierra club.org/factoryfarms/report01.
By Reed McManus
To expedite new trade agreements, President Bush wants Congress to grant him "fast track" authority-the power to negotiate trade pacts and submit them to Congress for an up or down vote. Here's why speed isn't everything:
1. Fast track would prevent Congress from changing or amending trade deals, even if those agreements hurt the environment, labor rights, or public health.
2. It's contrary to the U.S. Constitution. The founders gave trade authority to Congress, the branch of government closest to the people.
3. Trade authority would move from Congress to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is beholden to corporate interests.
4. It would expand trade deals that make it easy for foreign companies to sue the United States if our environmental laws interfere with their profits. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian methanol manufacturer Methanex has challenged a California law banning the carcinogenic gasoline additive MTBE, which contains its product.
5. It could rob U.S. taxpayers. If Methanex wins its case, the U.S. Treasury may have to pay up to $970 million in damages.
6. Fast track could be used to expand trade agreements that would prevent poor countries from improving their environmental laws.
7. It could spread the "Enron virus" around the world. The World Trade Organization, created with fast track authority, has imposed on other nations the same deregulated accounting practices that allowed Enron to hide its liabilities.
8. Fast track is supported by legislators hostile to environmental protection laws, among them Republicans Bill Thomas of California (League of Conservation Voters score: 7 percent) and Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas (LCV scores: tied at 3 percent).
9. Fast track is opposed by champions of environmental laws, including Democrats Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, and Republican Ben Gilman of New York (all with LCV scores of 93 percent), and Robert Matsui (D) of California (LCV score: 100 percent). 10. Negotiating environmental safeguards in trade agreements would be up to President Bush, who earned an LCV grade of D- on the environment during his first year in office.
The House of Representatives narrowly passed "fast track" legislation in December. Tell your senators we need "right track" trade policies instead. For more information, go to the Sierra Club's "Responsible Trade" Web site.
Interior Department ignores the call of its biologists
By Reed McManus
The Bush administration says it doesn't want the country to lose wetlands, but it seems adept at losing critiques of its wetlands policies. Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared harsh comments on the Army Corps of Engineers' proposed wetlands rules, suggesting the new regulations had "no scientific basis" and would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitats." But somehow the Department of the Interior never passed along its biologists' warnings to its engineers.
According to Interior Department press secretary Mark Pfeifle, the lapse was inadvertent, resulting from a lack of time to resolve conflicts between the biologists and the Interior's Office of Surface Mining. Pfeifle, a former Republican National Committee spokesperson, blamed the problem on Democratic senators, telling the Washington Post that they exacerbated the problem by not quickly confirming President Bush's pick for chief of the wildlife service.
This isn't the first time the Interior Department seemed flummoxed by interoffice mail. Last fall, Interior Secretary Gale Norton admitted she had ignored Fish and Wildlife Service statistics on caribou calving in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when she gave information to a congressional committee.
But Norton's department did find the time to submit a memo supporting a wetlands rule relating to coal mining that the Fish and Wildlife Service had found particularly objectionable. The unusual attention to this detail may be attributable to Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, who represented mining interests before moving to the Interior Department. When the Corps of Engineers released its final wetlands regulations in January, the lack of biological input showed. The new rules absolve developers from having to restore or create new wetlands for each acre they drain or fill. Instead, the Corps says its engineers will take on that responsibility. And the Corps will still routinely issue "general permits" for coal mines, including "mountaintop removal" operations in Appalachia that fill entire valleys.
By Dan Oko
Lepidoptera lovers have traded their nets for digital cameras, launched a Web site to track sightings across the country, and raised nearly $250,000 for a 100-acre butterfly garden in Texas. Now the members of the North American Butterfly Association are venturing where only the hardiest naturalists have gone before: into the world of politics. So far, the group has fought to preserve habitat in Pennsylvania and petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put Florida's vanishing Miami Blue on the endangered species list. "Butterflies will bring a whole new constituency to the environmental movement," says NABA president Jeffrey Glassberg. To learn more, or participate in the sightings program, visit www.naba.org.
Genetic engineering hurts farmers, too
By Jennifer Hattam
Environmentalists have long warned of the ecological risks posed by Bt corn, which is genetically engineered to resist European and southwestern corn borers. Now farmers have yet another reason not to grow those high-tech yellow ears: It could put their farms in the red. Bt corn growers have been losing out on exports to Europe, where engineered food is often unwanted. And now, a report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy calculates that they also lost an average of $1.31 per acre over the last six years-a total loss of $92 million nationwide. For the privilege of planting Bt corn, farmers pay 30 to 35 percent more than the cost of conventional seed. But those higher costs usually didn't pay off in increased yields.
"For each farm, the economics will differ depending upon the frequency of [corn borer] infestations . . . and a whole host of biotic (like natural predators and corn-plant defenses) and abiotic (cold weather and hard rains) factors," writes Dr. Charles Benbrook, the report's author and a former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Biotech corporations have promoted Bt corn as a one-size-fits-all solution to farmers' woes, but the result can be a field of bad dreams.
A new plan to protect monarch butterfly habitat from logging couldn't save the regal insects from inclement weather. In January, a severe rainstorm and freezing temperatures killed as many as 250 million monarchs in the mountains of central Mexico, perhaps 80 percent of the U.S. and Canadian butterflies breeding there. (Based on this death toll, scientists are revising their previous population estimates of 100 million monarchs wintering in Mexico.) The World Wildlife Fund suspects that illegal deforestation may have played a role in the largest known monarch die-off: As the forest canopy thins, it retains less heat and provides less cover against the potentially deadly elements. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2002.)
Rich park, poor park, beggar parks
By Paul Rauber
Funding for national forests, parks, and seashores shouldn't be a popularity contest. But just as Sierra Club skeptics had warned, the federal government's experiment in collecting recreation fees from visitors to public lands has resulted in a handful of locales grabbing the lion's share of the money. According to a study by the General Accounting Office, 20 percent of the sites collected 70 percent of the fee revenue. And since 80 percent of the fee dollars are supposed to remain in the place they were collected, the report suggests that the windfall wealth may turn into unnecessary infrastructure. "Sites that collect most of the revenue use it to meet their local needs," the report says, "even if these needs are minor in comparison with those at other locations where funding is not as plentiful."
The hazards of running parks like businesses are amply demonstrated in Tennessee, which closed 15 of its 54 state parks last year. In explaining how he was going to choose which parks to shut down, the state's Department of Environment and Conservation commissioner Milton Marks said, "We are not going to close those parks that create revenue. We are only going to close those where people come out to look at nature."
Bush Senior's green car plan stalls
By Paul Rauber
You'd think that an order from the White House would carry some weight in Washington. But the Sierra Club has had to go to court to get the federal bureaucracy to abide by the Energy Policy Act, signed in 1992 by then-president George H. W. Bush, which ordered federal agencies to purchase increasing percentages of alternate-fuel vehicles.
The goal of the law, said Bush when he signed it, was to "place America upon a clear path toward a more prosperous, energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, and economically secure future," by replacing 10 percent of U.S. gas consumption with alternative fuels by 2000, and 30 percent by 2010. But here it is 2002, and no federal agency, not even the EPA, has lived up to its purchasing obligations, leaving the feds at least 10,000 alternative vehicles short of a green fleet.
The original notion "was a fairly Republican idea," says Earthjustice attorney James Tutchton, who is suing the federal agencies on behalf of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. "The government would use its market power to buy vehicles, creating an infrastructure so state, municipal, and private fleets could follow."
Environmentalists are seeking a court order directing the agencies to follow the law. No word yet on the position of the current Bush administration. "They'd be hard-pressed to say this is a stupid law," Tutchton points out, "since his dad signed it."
And what residents can do about it
By Alison Wellner
For most people, the word "sprawl" conjures up images of boomtowns in the rapidly growing West and South, like Las Vegas, or Nashville, or Atlanta. But metropolitan areas with stagnant-or even declining-populations can also suffer from sprawl.
It may sound paradoxical, but in a "thinning metropolis" like Rochester, New York, land development is outpacing population growth as residents flee urban centers in search of better housing-and take their tax money with them. The cash-strapped downtown areas and inner-ring suburbs can't compete with outlying areas for developers' dollars, creating a hard-to-break cycle.
The ground for Rochester's dilemma was laid in the 1960s, when the population was booming. Growth slowed in the early 1970s, but investment in suburban sewage, water, and highways continued. Instead of creating a new regional plan, rapidly emptying Rochester let development accrete slowly but steadily along existing roads.
"A thinning metropolis has a different suburban character: It's a house here and a house there," says Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. "The growth is so incremental, you don't even notice it, but it ends up even more spread out."
Competition for scarce resources also prevents local governments from working together on "smart growth." Reformers point to Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have embarked on an innovative tax-sharing scheme that allows the entire region to benefit from development-and channel it to the most appropriate location. (See "How to Heal Our Cities," May/June 2000.) The private sector can also help, as General Motors recently did when it began developing its global headquarters in the heart of downtown Detroit, rather than in an outlying office park. Even in the region around Rochester, some individual towns are ahead of the curve. The 25,000-resident suburb of Pittsford has sold $10 million in bonds to buy up 1,200 acres on seven farms, and protected 800 more acres by changing zoning laws.
Regions at Risk
If current trends continue over the next decade, these metropolitan areas are the most likely to shrink and sprawl:
1. Anniston, Alabama
Monkey Wrench Gang
By Reed McManus
Meet the rule killers. The little-known but powerful Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, part of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has singled out more than a dozen environmental rules that it considers "obsolete or outmoded, and could be rescinded or updated." Its report relies on and liberally quotes industry lobbyists and free-market think tanks, so among the rules deemed "high priority" for scrutiny are some near and dear to environmentalists: The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which bans new roadbuilding in national forests. Temporary, "low impact" roads might be a better alternative, a free-market think tank suggests in the report. Forest Service planning rules, which "polarize" the public, according to comments. "The Forest Service should consider alternatives to planning, such as an increased reliance on markets and incentive-based mechanisms." Hardrock mining reform, whose "requirements to perform Environmental Assessments are unnecessary and costly."
A proposed snowmobile ban in Rocky Mountain National Park, which "claims one set of users is superior to another" and could hurt local businesses. Federal guidelines for concentrated animal feeding operations, which could be replaced with "community-based approaches that rely on market incentives."
And, in case you thought at least one key issue had been put to rest, arsenic standards for drinking water. Seven months after the Bush administration suspended a new ten-parts-per-billion standard for arsenic, in November the EPA announced that it would adopt the tough rule. But the White House's regulatory office thinks this drinking issue is good for another round.
Granted sweeping authority by the Bush administration, the regulatory office can slow, stall, or simply kill new rules, no matter how long they've been in planning. "It's the molasses that slows the wheels of government," says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.
By Marilyn Berlin Snell
The oil company Unocal fuels millions of cars, but its global operations have also fueled a backlash. Last fall, prodded by students and seven Nobel Peace Prize winners, the University of Virginia divested 50,000 shares of stock from the California-based company. The University of Minnesota has also taken a stand, divesting $1.5 million from the French oil company Total-Unocal's partner on a $2.1 billion pipeline project in Burma. Unocal has been inspiring outrage on college campuses and elsewhere for doing business with Burma's violent military junta, which was hired by the oil company to provide security for its Yadana pipeline project. Unocal is currently being sued in U.S. federal court for alleged human-rights violations associated with the project-including slave labor, forced relocation of entire villages, rape, and torture.
Until the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, linked to Al Qaeda, Unocal had also been working on a deal with Afghanistan to build a pipeline through that country. The company's chief negotiator in those talks is now the Bush administration's special envoy to Kabul.
When Hurricane Floyd roared through North Carolina in 1999, it drowned more than 100,000 swine in factory farms. Their raw waste, collected in massive open pits, poured into rivers and streams-contaminating water supplies throughout the eastern region of the state.
In a farsighted effort to avoid another such hellacious mess, North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund is providing more than $6 million this year to buy out hog operations in the state's 100-year floodplain. The goal is to get rid of high-risk factory farms, while encouraging less-polluting agricultural endeavors.
Last year, the fund eliminated 32 waste pits at 14 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). By 2003, the state hopes to put an additional 15 CAFOs out of their misery.
Where to Work
Some companies (we won't name names) don't deserve the accolades they've gotten from business magazines. But Patagonia not only has a healthy bottom line, it is also ranked 41st on Fortune's 2002 list of the best companies to work for. The California-based outdoor-clothing manufacturer encourages its employees to take a two-month paid leave to volunteer with an environmental organization. Patagonia also donates 1 percent of annual sales or 10 percent of its pre-tax profit-whichever is higher-to conservation efforts. Since 1985, the company has given over $17 million to grassroots activists and green groups, including the Sierra Club. Oh yes, and it serves organic food in its cafeteria, offers training sessions in nonviolent civil disobedience, uses only organic cotton, makes some of its clothes out of recycled soda bottles, and offers a voucher worth $2,000 to employees who buy hybrid cars.
D.C. Dumps Dirty Diesel. The nation's fifth-largest bus system cleaned up in February, thanks in part to lobbying by Washington, D.C., Sierra Club members. Trumpeting a modernization initiative for the outmoded Metrobus fleet, officials unveiled 164 new natural-gas-powered buses, which emit 90 percent less soot than diesel models. The Club's next challenge: making sure the capital carries out its pledge to upgrade the city's 1,432 remaining diesel buses. (See "All Aboard," January/February 2002.)
Bitterroot Victory. A backroom deal to turn Montana's Bitterroot National Forest into a tree farm was averted in February when the Sierra Club and other environmental groups negotiated a settlement that will save 27,000 acres from the ax. Activists had filed suit after U.S. Forest Service officials circumvented the public-appeals process and approved logging on 46,000 acres in the name of fire protection. In the burned areas where logging will still occur, the Sierra Club is helping organize volunteers to monitor the cuts and minimize damage to soils and wildlife. The land preserved by the final agreement includes key watersheds and sensitive habitat for bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2002.)
Finger-Lickin' Good? Fast food is still fattening, but chicken from McDonald's, Wendy's, and Popeyes has gotten healthier since the three companies stopped buying birds treated with fluoroquinolone antibiotics. Growing concern about this common industry practice, which may reduce the effectiveness of life-saving human drugs like Cipro, also led Tyson Foods, Perdue, and Foster Farms to announce in February that they have eliminated or reduced the amount of antibiotics routinely fed to healthy chickens. Of course, we'll have to take their word for it: no government agency keeps track of antibiotic use in animals. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2002.)
Bechtel v. Bolivia. With annual revenues of $14 billion, the Bechtel Corporation is almost as rich as the country of Bolivia, where the entire gross domestic product was most recently estimated at $20.9 billion. But that didn't keep the San Francisco-based construction giant from drastically raising utility rates when it took over the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The soaring costs sparked mass protests that eventually forced the government to cancel its contract with a Bechtel subsidiary in April 2000. Now Bechtel has filed a November 2001 request for arbitration with the World Bank, demanding $25 million in lost potential profits from the impoverished nation. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2001.)
Tyson's Toxic Waste. When a huge corporate livestock operation crams 600,000 chickens in one "farm," the results aren't pretty. Just one of the nasty by-products is ammonia gas, which can cause respiratory problems when inhaled. In February, the Sierra Club announced its intention to sue Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat producer and processor, for failing to report hazardous ammonia releases from four chicken factories in Kentucky. Under the Superfund law, such information must be made available to the public, so Tyson's unfortunate neighbors can know what's blowin' in the wind. (See "Meat Factories," January/February 1999.)Up to Top