The environmental community in Washington finds itself in near-total
disarray. They had put all their eggs in Bill Clinton's basket, and now
most of those eggs are broken. If anyone held a lingering hope for this
President, Mr. Clinton laid it to rest this week when he quietly killed
the Chemical Safety and Hazard Identification Board. Congress had
created the Board in the Clean Air Act of 1990 to "investigate the
causes of chemical accidents, issue reports to Congress and other
federal and state agencies, and propose ways to reduce the risk of
injuries arising from the production and use of chemicals." At least 19
chemical accidents occur EVERY DAY in the U.S. (see REHW #408), and the
Board was intended to play a role similar to the National
Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane crashes and
recommends ways to improve airline safety. Both organized labor and the
environmental community wanted the Chemical Safety Board very badly.
Indeed, both workers and communities NEED such a board very badly. Real
people are hurt every day by chemical accidents and no agency has clear
authority to investigate the causes. After an accident, industry
investigates itself. At one time, Mr. Clinton evidently saw the need.
He appointed 3 highly-qualified members to the Board, and they had
already been confirmed by the Senate. But this week the President
quietly killed the Board in an apparent attempt to appease the Chemical
Manufacturers Association and the disciples of House Speaker Newt
Gingrich. The President seems to believe he can out-Republican the
Republicans. The good news is that no one can any longer hold on to
false illusions about this President's stance on environmental justice
for workers and communities.
It took the environmental community a long time to recognize the truth
about this President. When Mr. Clinton entered office, he immediately
started behaving just like his predecessor, George Bush (for example,
see REHW #324, #326 and #345). Still, after 12 years out in the cold,
when this President snapped his fingers the big environmental groups
wagged their tails like lost puppies happy to find a home, any home.
For example, the big enviros worked hard to give the President a
victory on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. There were 2
big centers of opposition to NAFTA --organized labor and the vast
majority of local environmental activists (joined by Greenpeace, Sierra
Club, Friends of the Earth, and Environmental Action). To help Mr.
Clinton overcome the people's opposition to NAFTA, several of the big
Washington enviro groups formed the Environmental Coalition for NAFTA,
which included Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC), National Wildlife Federation, the Audubon
Society, and the World Wildlife Fund. "We [environmentalists] were one
of the 2 big prongs the administration had to fight," said John Adams,
leader of NRDC. "The other was labor. We broke the back of the
environmental opposition to NAFTA. After we established our position,
Clinton only had labor to fight. We did him a big favor."
Mr. Clinton returned the favor by giving the big enviros "access." He
invited them into the White House to have breakfast with Vice-President
Al Gore. "I can't tell you how wonderful it is to walk down the hall in
the White House or a government agency and be greeted by your first
name," said Brock Evans, the Audubon Society's chief lobbyist. But
getting friendly with the White House staff and drinking orange juice
out of silver cups never produced any tangible environmental benefits.
After all, what changes can occur if everyone is committed to
maintaining lock-step with whatever the President proposes? In May,
1993, in the presence of two dozen national environmental leaders, I
heard John Adams of NRDC say to Carol Browner, head of U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, "You are our general. We are your
troops. We await your orders." At that point there was already plenty
of reason to be suspicious of this administration's environmental
intentions; for example, in February, 1993, Ms. Browner had announced
her plan to kill the Delaney clause, the only existing federal law
based on the public health principle of prevention. The Delaney clause
prohibits known cancer-causing chemicals from being intentionally added
to processed foods. It doesn't allow a small amount of poison or a
"negligible" amount. It allows zero. Ms. Browner's idea --which she
adopted directly from the food chemical industry --was to replace the
Delaney Clause with a "one-in-a-million" risk assessment, which would
allow "small" or "negligible" amounts of cancer-causing chemicals to be
added to the American food supply. This was an idea that George Bush
and Dan Quayle had been talking up, but it was Bill Clinton who
actually proposed it in legislation. The Washington enviros supported
the President's anti-prevention agenda because such support would
continue their "access."
Currying favor with this President led the environmental community into
several deep traps. For example, Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC) blundered into a terrible dilemma. To support President Clinton,
NRDC caved in on Delaney. Instead of supporting prevention, NRDC is now
pushing the "one-in-a-million" risk standard that the food chemical
industry favors; NRDC is calling for elaborate "risk assessments" to be
completed for every pesticide used on our food. Such risk
assessments are a scientific sham because the necessary data on health
effects of chemicals do not exist and will never exist. Combinations of
many chemicals are simply too complicated to study scientifically. Even
more importantly, since the public cannot understand the technical
details of risk assessment, the public is cut out of the debate as soon
as risk assessment becomes the centerpiece of pesticide policy. The
fight is reduced to NRDC's experts against the experts representing
President Clinton and the food chemical industry. And since the long-
term health consequences of exposing people to many different chemicals
simultaneously can never be known, risk assessments are built upon
dozens of judgments, suppositions, and guesses. What seems to be a
scientific debate is actually a debate decided not by facts but by
political clout. But with the public cut out of the debate, who holds
the clout? NRDC? Or the President and his friends and supporters in the
food chemical industry --Monsanto, Dow and the others? It is hard to
imagine how NRDC's "experts" think they can win such a political
struggle without popular support.
It gets worse. Now House Speaker Gingrich has seized upon the enviros'
favored regulatory tool --the risk assessment --and is saying every
government regulation must be accompanied by a risk assessment. Mr.
Gingrich has proposed "The Risk Communication Act of 1995" which would
require all government agencies to conduct a risk assessment and a
cost/benefit analysis for every regulation that might affect "more than
100 people" --in other words, just about every regulation.
The procedure for risk assessment is spelled out in the proposed law.
Government will be required to assemble a "peer review panel" made up
of "scientific experts in the appropriate disciplines with recent
professional experience with the substance for which risk assessment
and cost/benefit analysis is conducted." In other words, only
scientists employed by the regulated industries are likely to meet the
selection criteria as peer reviewers. These "peer review panels" will
analyze the government's risk assessments; if the peer review experts
disagree with the government's experts, the proposed regulation will be
shelved until government can convince the independent peer reviewers
that the government is right, or until hell freezes over, whichever
comes first. In Mr. Gingrich's hands, the enviros' favored tool, risk
assessment, becomes a powerful political weapon for paralyzing, and
thus further discrediting, many legitimate government programs.
This proposed law is a logical result of the big enviros' political
style: caving in on basic principles such as "negligible risk" in order
to be permitted to continue playing footsie with the power elite in
Washington; selling out political allies like organized labor and the
grass-roots environmental movement in order to enjoy eggs benedict at
the White House; allowing the President and his corporate supporters to
define what is politically possible; never enunciating a clear, far-
reaching program that confronts the choke-hold that the corporate form
has on America; avoiding all ideas for fundamental reform that combine
economic fair play with real protection of human health and the
environment; in sum, never advocating a program that could catch the
public imagination and spark a real revolt against the status quo.
The big enviros --and their supporters --have to recognize that the
apostles of Newt Gingrich did not take power by lobbying in Washington.
They took power by organizing at the grass-roots level in communities
across America. They did not appeal to voters by watering down their
language and selling out their principles. Of course Mr. Gingrich and
his friends are lying about their intentions --they are saying they
want to help the little guy when in fact most of their programs are
aimed at consolidating the political and economic power of corporations
and the corporate elite. But over the years most of the big
environmental groups have been guilty of the very same lies.
The big environmental groups --the traditional environmental "movement"
as they like to call themselves --now lack viable political ideas that
can reshape and regain power by appealing to the American people. They
are too timid or too indentured to speak of the nation's real problems:
the raw power that the global corporations wield over our jobs, our
quality of life, our mass media, our elections, our legislatures, our
schools, our courts, and indeed our minds.
Because the traditional environmental movement is afraid to even
WHISPER about these deep-seated sources of the nation's ills, the
movement now finds itself in near-total disarray; viewed as sell-outs
and detested by grass-roots activists who are fighting for their lives
and their children's future in workplaces and communities across
America; lacking political vision; fragmented; marginalized;
dispirited; coopted; stumbling in directions that can only reinforce
the status quo.
It is time to abandon all hope of saving our communities, our health,
or our environment, by tweaking government regulations. It is time for
big-picture organizing in the nation's best political tradition. It is
time to examine in detail how corporations managed to get out-of-
control in a nation founded on the principle that the people are
sovereign. Out of control, serving only their own narrow interests,
corporations have set the nation on an accelerating downward slide. A
bold populist political program to directly confront these unpleasant
realities is the only road that offers any hope.
 Mark Dowie, "The Selling (out) of the Greens; Friends of Earth--or
Bill?" THE NATION Vol. 258 (April 18, 1994), pgs. 514-517.
 Quoted in Mark Dowie, cited above.
 See Laurie Mott, Farrel Vance, and Jennifer Curtis, HANDLE WITH
CARE: CHILDREN AND ENVIRONMENTAL CARCINOGENS (San Francisco, Ca.:
Natural Resources Defense Council, 1994).
Descriptor terms: accidents; chemical safety board; bill clinton;
national transportation safety board; nafta; edf; nrdc; delaney clause;
john adams; pesticides; risk assessment; food safety; food chemical
industry; newt gingrich; republican party; negligible risk;
corporations; corporate form; populism;