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#332 - Why Exalt The Wise Use Movement Now, 07-Apr-1993

Readers have been asking, why would the NEW YORK TIMES align itself
with the so-called wise use movement? (See RHWN #331 and #330.) We can
only speculate, but there are perhaps many reasons.

Perhaps it is partly because the TIMES itself is a major polluter that
was sued in August, 1991, for $1.3 billion by two Canadian Indian
nations who accused the TIMES of polluting their waters and their fish
with dioxins spewed from a paper mill the TIMES partly owned until they
sold their share in December, 1991.[1]

Perhaps it is partly because some individual TIMES writers enjoy the
simple rhetoric of the so-called wise use movement--the only real
problem we face is big government wasting billions of our tax dollars
regulating us to death. (Such simple ideas are powerfully attractive;
after all, such ideas kept Ronald Reagan and George Bush in high office
for 12 years while their friends and associates, both Republican and
Democrat, raided the national treasury, which they refilled
periodically by borrowing from future generations, creating a debt
unprecedented in the history of the world.)

But perhaps it is even more fundamental. The TIMES is known as
America's newspaper of record. The TIMES tries to comprehend, and
reflect American society, to hold up a mirror so we can see ourselves.
It is only natural that they select what they think we should see; it
could not be otherwise. What is the reality the TIMES wants us to see?

Here is a hypothesis:

The main message of the TIMES's five-part series was that "low"
exposures to chemicals and radiation are not harmful to humans or
ecosystems, at least not harmful enough to warrant the expenditure of
billions of dollars for protection.

There are two realities at work here. First there is Superfund, the law
Congress passed in 1980 to clean up old chemical dumps. And second
there is the reality of ongoing U.S. waste production, which increases
relentlessly each year at a steady 6.5 to 7.5 percent, total annual
production doubling every 10 to 12 years.

Superfund: the Problem of Old Chemical Dumps

Superfund was passed in 1980 with high hopes that old chemical dumps
could be located and cleaned up promptly. No one imagined that the
problem was as large as it turned out to be. Congress and
environmentalists thought a few new technologies would be developed
that would clean up the problem within 10 years or so. But as the 1980s
dragged on, more and more contaminated sites were discovered, and no
technologies were found that could clean them up. Between 1980 and
1986, $1.6 billion was spent but only 13 sites were cleaned up.[2]

In 1989, Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) pointed out
that numerous studies had shown that the standard remedy for Superfund
sites, a technique called pump-and-treat, was not working. Pump-and-
treat tries to pump chemicals up to the surface and detoxify them. The
trouble is, even after years of pumping, sufficient chemicals remain
underground to continuously contaminate enormous quantities of
groundwater--the drinking water supply of half the American people and
95 percent of rural residents (see RHWN #163). Furthermore, OTA
estimated the size of the whole problem and concluded that there might
be as many as 439,000 contaminated sites (RHWN #272), plus six million
individual underground storage tanks, 15 to 25 percent of which are
already leaking (see RHWN #229 revised). In 1991 the National Academy
of Sciences confirmed that people living near chemical dumps have been
shown to suffer from "birth defects, spontaneous abortions, cardiac
anomalies [heart problems], fatigue, and neurologic impairment" and
that "some studies have detected excesses of cancer in residents
exposed to compounds found at hazardous waste sites." Furthermore, the
National Academy said, "Millions of tons of hazardous materials are

migrating into groundwater in areas where they could pose problems in
the future, even though current risks could be negligible." (See RHWN
#271.) (Another form of borrowing from future generations.)

By the early 1990s, it was clear that the only way to achieve the
central goal of the Superfund law (to protect the public from old
chemical dumps) would be to excavate the contaminated soil and store it
above-ground in steel-reinforced concrete buildings. (See RHWN #260.)
This solution, however, suffers from a major drawback: it would make
the size of the problem visible to everyone, and therefore eventually
might create major unrest among the public.

Therefore, solving the problem of old chemical dumps is now known to be
technically difficult, very costly, and potentially politically

Continually-increasing waste generation

As the 1980s progressed, the size of the ongoing waste-creation problem
came into clearer focus. In 1973 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) estimated the U.S. was producing 100 pounds of toxic waste for
each citizen each year, a total of 10 million tons annually. But by
1991 the National Academy of Sciences put the figure at 48,000 pounds
per year for each citizen, or 6 billion tons total each year. (See RHWN
#272.) Of this large total the petrochemical industry discharges an
estimated 400 billion pounds (200 million tons) directly into the
environment each year. If this waste were required to be incinerated at
a cost of $100 per ton, waste processing would cost the petrochemical
industry $20 billion each year. However, in 1986 the total after-tax
profits of the petrochemical industry were only $2.6 billion, so $20
billion is simply not available for waste processing.[3] If it is to
survive in its present form, therefore, the petrochemical industry must
continue to use the free services of the natural environment for most
waste disposal, which is in fact what happens: the vast majority of
wastes still go into pits, ponds, lagoons, landfills and sewer systems,
then into the environment. So long as petrochemical products are
produced in anything like current quantities, there is no realistic
prospect that the accumulation of toxics in the environment will even
be stabilized, much less reduced.

A Social Movement Seeking Justice Arises

Meanwhile, starting in 1978 a social movement sprang up around
Superfund sites, made up of people who had observed, first-hand, health
damage and suffering in their families and in their neighbors'
families. These people naturally wanted cleanup to occur quickly
because they believed they and their children were in constant danger.
Even though less than 1 percent of Superfund monies were spent on
health studies, sufficient scientific investigations were completed to
convince a reasonable person that many Superfund sites endanger nearby
residents. (For example, see RHWN #115, #127, #272, #276, #313.)

As the 1980s progressed, the social movement that started around dump
sites began to recognize that its membership was not a randomly-
selected group of Americans but was disproportionately poor and non-
white or Spanish-speaking. The concept of "environmental justice" began
to occur to people, as they looked around their neighborhoods and saw
obvious environmental INjustices. The NEW YORK TIMES reported the
existence of this social movement in a front-page story January 11,
1993 --some six years after the movement began to describe itself in
terms of "justice" and 15 years after the movement sprang into being at
Love Canal. Curiously, in its January, 1993, story the TIMES chose to
portray this social movement as entirely non-white, surely one of the
greatest distortions the TIMES has ever put into print. Why might the
TIMES do that?

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

We can see that the influential leaders of American society find
themselves between a rock and a hard place. People are justifiably
frightened by growing quantities of known toxins now measurable in
their soil, food, water, air, homes and bodies. People recognize that
these toxins are everywhere, but are unevenly distributed, with the
poor and the dispossessed receiving an unfairly large exposure. The
poor and dispossessed have grown self-conscious about their situation
and have made it clear that they intend to do something about it. They
are motivated not merely by a yearning to share in the wealth and
opportunity of this nation, but by the knowledge that their health and
the health of their children is what's at stake. Their movement is a
clear case of the have-nots making just demands of the haves.

This movement for environmental justice, as we have observed it,
increasingly employs the one tactic that major polluters have never
learned to handle: non-violent direct confrontation. Using non-
violence, people are demanding simple justice, and the voice and
visibility of this social movement is steadily growing.

What options do the leaders of American society (and, implicitly, the
NEW YORK TIMES) have? They could of course confront toxins head on and
begin to talk about the necessary changes, chief among them pollution
prevention, toxics use reduction (phrases that never appeared in the
TIMES'S 5-part series) and redress of inequities.

Or, alternatively, they could repeatedly assert that "low" levels of
toxins are safe, and that people living near Superfund dumps are simply
trying to rob the public treasury of trillions of dollars. Learning
from the tobacco industry, they could employ scientists to say that no
harm has occurred to anyone, that peoples' symptoms are psychological
or are caused by their own freely-chosen lifestyles.

Or--is it too far-fetched and paranoid to suggest?--the so-called wise
use movement, which is not opposed to the use of violence, could be
incited, perhaps provoking a violent counter-attack from those seeking
environmental justice. So long as advocates of environmental justice
use only non-violent direct confrontation, major polluters have no easy
way of dismissing their fundamental claims. But should this movement
turn to violence, it could disappear from the American scene within a
year or two. Such things have been observed in America before.

--Peter Montague


[1] Council on Economic Priorities, KIMBERLY-CLARK, A REPORT ON THE
Economic Priorities [phone: (212) 420-1133], May, 1992), pgs. 25-26.

[2] In 1991 the NEW YORK TIMES reported (6/16/91, Section 3, pgs 1, 6)
that 60 Superfund sites had been cleaned up at a cost of $11.5 billion.

[3] William Ophuls and A. Stephen Boyan, Jr., ECOLOGY AND THE POLITICS
OF SCARCITY REVISITED (N.Y.: W.H. Freeman, 1992), pg. 151.

Descriptor terms: new york times; superfund; remedial action; pollution
prevention; costs; landfilling; hazardous waste generation; statistics;
chemical industry; petroleum; oil;