The NEW YORK TIMES last week ran a five-part series on environmental
policy, by three different writers. Three of the stories ran on page
one and all five left readers with the sense that the TIMES favors
turning back the clock 20 years or more, to return to environmental
policies we enjoyed prior to 1970. Today we will describe, and briefly
comment on, the main points in each of the five articles.
As we saw last week (RHWN #330), Part 1 of the series made three main
(a) U.S. environmental policy was never planned as a coherent strategy
for protecting the environment, but evolved one law at a time, often in
response to particular crises. THIS IS OF COURSE TRUE AND REGRETTABLE.
IT IS ALSO TRUE OF EVERY OTHER COMPLICATED PUBLIC POLICY, SUCH AS
MILITARY POLICY, FOREIGN POLICY, AND TRADE POLICY.
(b) Congress has allowed public sentiment to guide policy, instead of
scientific experts who know better than the public what should be done.
THE Times IGNORES THE OBVIOUS FACT THAT SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY CREATED
THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS THAT THE PUBLIC IS NOW STRUGGLING TO SOLVE.
THE NATION'S BEST SCIENTISTS, EMPLOYED BY COMPANIES LIKE MONSANTO AND
DUPONT, GAVE US A PLANET THOROUGHLY ADULTERATED BY TOXIC PCBS, OZONE-
DEPLETING CFCS AND LEGIONS OF OTHER FANCIFUL MOLECULES INVENTED BY
CHEMISTS. THE Times OFFERS NO EVIDENCE THAT THESE SCIENTISTS, OR
OTHERS, CAN OFFER SPECIAL INSIGHTS INTO PUBLIC POLICIES DESIGNED TO
SOLVE (OR BETTER YET, AVOID) SUCH PROBLEMS.
IN ITS 5-PART SERIES, THE Times DOES NOT ONCE MENTION POLLUTION
PREVENTION. THE PUSH FOR PREVENTION IS COMING FROM THE TAXPAYING
PUBLIC--MOST OFTEN POOR PEOPLE AND PEOPLE OF COLOR--WHO ARE BEARING THE
PAIN AND THE COSTS OF POLICIES DEVELOPED BY PRIVATE FIRMS THAT WERE
CREATED FOR THE NARROW PURPOSE OF HARNESSING SCIENTIFIC AND
(c) The TIMES goes on to suggest that because Congress has listened to
the voters and not to the scientific experts, the nation's
environmental policy has spawned an expensive and ineffective program
that wastes billions of dollars on insignificant problems (mainly,
cleaning up chemically-contaminated sites) while important problems,
like the loss of species diversity and global warming, grow unchecked.
WE AGREE WITH THE Times THAT THE NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
APPARATUS IS FRAGMENTED AND THAT SOME PROGRAMS ARE WASTEFUL. BUT,
UNLIKE THE Times, WE BELIEVE THIS HAS OCCURRED BECAUSE NATIONAL POLICY
DOES NOT ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSE OF THESE INTERRELATED PROBLEMS FROM A
PREVENTION PERSPECTIVE, AND BECAUSE IT FAILS TO RECOGNIZE THAT ALL
ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS ARE INTERCONNECTED.
THE Times's PREFERRED SOLUTIONS SUFFER FROM THE SAME NARROW FOCUS AS
PRESENT POLICIES. THE Times SEEMS NOT TO UNDERSTAND THAT SOLVING A
PROBLEM LIKE SPECIES LOSS WILL REQUIRE US TO CLEAN UP PAST, AND AVOID
FUTURE, CHEMICAL CONTAMINATION. FOR EXAMPLE, ECONOMICALLY DEVASTATING
LOSS OF OYSTERS IN CHESAPEAKE BAY IS BEING CAUSED BY OVERFISHING, BY
DESTRUCTION OF HABITAT, AND BY LOW LEVELS OF METALS AND ORGANOCHLORINE
COMPOUNDS THAT DAMAGE THE OYSTERS' IMMUNE SYSTEMS, MAKING THEM
VULNERABLE TO FATAL BACTERIAL INFECTIONS. THE Times's IMPLIED
PRESCRIPTION FOR OUR ILLS DOES NOT RECOGNIZE THAT "LOW" LEVELS OF
CHEMICAL CONTAMINATION CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY TO THE VERY PROBLEMS
THAT THE Times SINGLES OUT AS NEEDING OUR ATTENTION: MERCURY IN FISH,
LEAD IN CHILDREN, GLOBAL WARMING, AND SPECIES LOSS. MANY STORIES IN THE
Science Times (WHICH APPEARS AS PART OF THE Times EACH TUESDAY) HAVE
MADE THIS POINT IN VARIOUS WAYS. PERHAPS THE BEST THING THE Times's
WRITERS COULD DO IS READ THEIR OWN NEWSPAPER DILIGENTLY.
Part 2 of the series offers a lengthy example of what the TIMES
considers bad policy: the 1988 ban on dumping New York City's
chemically-contaminated sewage sludge into the ocean. The TIMES comes
out squarely in favor of continued dumping of chemically-contaminated
sewage sludge in the ocean because "some argue" that it would be less
hazardous than "most of the disposal methods that have replaced it."
"The ocean dumping ban is a striking triumph of environmental politics
over science," the TIMES says.
HERE AGAIN, THE Times's WRITERS SEEM ASTONISHINGLY IGNORANT OF
INTERCONNECTED ECOLOGICAL SYSTEMS. SEWAGE CONTAINS LARGE QUANTITIES OF
VALUABLE (INDEED, ESSENTIAL) NUTRIENTS SUCH AS PHOSPHORUS AND NITROGEN.
BUT SEWAGE ALSO CONTAINS TOXIC CHEMICALS BECAUSE OUR SMARTEST ENGINEERS
MISTAKENLY BUILT SEWER SYSTEMS THAT MIX HUMAN WASTES WITH INDUSTRIAL
WASTES. THE SOLUTION IS NOT TO THROW THE WHOLE MESS IN THE OCEAN AND
HOPE FOR THE BEST. THE SOLUTION IS TO KEEP THE TOXICS OUT OF THE SEWERS
(PREVENTION) AND TO RETURN THE PHOSPHOROUS AND NITROGEN TO THE SOILS
FROM WHENCE THEY CAME.
Part 3 of the series announced the TIMES'S recent discovery that
laboratory animals are physiologically different from humans and that
testing toxic chemicals on laboratory animals does not offer precise
information about the effects of chemicals on humans. THE Times DOESN'T
SEEM TO KNOW THAT THIS HAS ALL BEEN UNDERSTOOD SINCE THE 1920S WHEN
ANIMAL TESTING FIRST BEGAN. THE Times SAYS THAT THIS KNOWLEDGE HAS
"THROWN INTO QUESTION" THE "RATIONALE BEHIND A LARGE PORTION OF THE
NATION'S ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS." BASED ON ANIMAL STUDIES, WHICH ARE
NOW RECOGNIZED AS FLAWED, THE Times SAYS, EXPERTS ARE ASKING WHETHER
THE NATION IS "WASTING BILLIONS OF DOLLARS REGULATING SUBSTANCES THAT
MIGHT POSE LITTLE RISK." THE Times TOOK THIS OCCASION TO REPEAT THE
PHRASE, WHICH IT HAD ALREADY STATED IN PART 1 OF THE SERIES, THAT
DIOXIN "IS NOT NEARLY AS HARMFUL AS ORIGINALLY BELIEVED." THE Times
LIKES THIS PHRASE AND HAS REPEATED IT AT LEAST FIVE TIMES IN THE LAST
TWO YEARS, EVEN THOUGH IT IS CONTRADICTED BY THE LATEST AND MOST
THOROUGH SCIENTIFIC STUDIES. The TIMES goes on to suggest that
animal studies should be supplemented by "studies of [human] population
groups found to have been exposed to the substances without knowing of
the possible risk," plus laboratory analyses of ways in which chemicals
interact with cells. The TIMES then goes on to say that such studies
are prohibitively expensive, leaving us with animal studies as the best
available indicator of a chemical's toxicity.
THE Times FAILS TO MENTION WHY WE STUDY ANIMALS IN THE LABORATORY. WE
DO IT BECAUSE IT IS IMMORAL AND UNETHICAL FOR SCIENTISTS TO CONDUCT
HUMAN EXPERIMENTS WITH TOXIC CHEMICALS. (ODDLY, IT IS NOT CONSIDERED
IMMORAL OR UNETHICAL TO EXPOSE WORKERS AND CONSUMERS TO TOXIC CHEMICALS
ABOUT WHICH LITTLE OR NOTHING IS KNOWN. DOING SO TO EARN MONEY IS
SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE; DOING SO TO GAIN KNOWLEDGE ABOUT A CHEMICAL'S
EFFECTS IS CONSIDERED IMMORAL. ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ANALYSTS AND THE
Times MIGHT USEFULLY EXPLORE THIS APPARENT CONTRADICTION.)
Part 4 of the series describes what the TIMES calls a "grass-roots"
revolt against the high cost of environmental regulations. The TIMES
says this movement is made up of "home owners, farmers, miners, and
timber industry workers" who are concerned about the Endangered Species
Act and the Clean Water Act. THE Times DID NOT GIVE THIS MOVEMENT A
NAME, BUT WE OBSERVE THE AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTAL SCENE CLOSELY AND THE
ONLY GROUP WE KNOW THAT FITS THIS DESCRIPTION IS THE WISE USE MOVEMENT,
A VOCAL AND SOMETIMES VIOLENT CLAN WITH A SMALL POPULAR FOLLOWING,
WHICH RECEIVES FUNDING FROM MAJOR POLLUTERS.
This part of the series gives a few examples of the "high" costs of
protecting the environment. For example, the City of Columbus, Ohio,
spends 11% of its budget protecting the environment, the TIMES says.
The TIMES quotes a city official who complains that federal rules are
"taking money from decent programs and making me waste them [sic] on
less important problems." The official does not cite any examples of a
"less important problem" but Part 4 opened with a description of EPA
regulations requiring Columbus to clean up a chemically-contaminated
vacant lot at a cost of $2.4 million; by this the TIMES seems to say
that chemical contamination is the chief culprit in America's wasteful
environmental protection program. WE AGREE THAT THE SUPERFUND PROGRAM
HAS WASTED BILLIONS OF DOLLARS AND ACHIEVED FEW CLEANUPS. HOWEVER, IT
IS NOT THE GOAL OF THE PROGRAM (CLEANUP, AND PROTECTION OF HUMAN
HEALTH) THAT WE FAULT. IT IS THE REAGAN/BUSH EPA'S CORRUPT AND WITLESS
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE PROGRAM THAT TROUBLES US.
Part 4 ends by ridiculing EPA's radon regulations. Radon is a
naturally-occurring radioactive gas that has been measured inside
homes, particularly in modern homes built for energy efficiency. Radon
has been around for a long time but older homes were leaky so fresh air
entered them easily and diluted the radon. Modern homes are "tight" (to
reduce energy waste); in such homes radon gas can accumulate to levels
the EPA considers dangerous. EPA has also tried to limit the amount of
naturally-occurring radon in water systems because water can release
radon into the air inside a home when it becomes turbulent, such as
during dish washing, flushing, or showering. THE Times RIDICULES THIS
EPA PROGRAM SAYING, "IN OTHER WORDS, THE GOVERNMENT WAS TRYING TO
PREVENT SOMEONE FROM GETTING LUNG CANCER FROM THEIR MORNING SHOWER."
BUT THAT IS, IN FACT, THE AIM OF THE PROGRAM AND IT IS A VALID AIM.
SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE OF RADON WAS DEVELOPED NOT BY ANIMAL STUDIES BUT
BY EXPOSING LARGE NUMBERS OF URANIUM MINERS TO RADON IN THE MINES, THEN
COUNTING THEIR CANCERS. THE Times DOES ITS BEST TO DISCREDIT EVEN THIS
SOURCE OF INFORMATION SAYING, "AMONG THOSE [MINERS] WHO DIED, THOUGH,
IT WAS ALSO TRUE THAT MANY WERE HEAVY SMOKERS." THE FIRST SCIENTISTS
WHO STUDIED URANIUM MINERS TO ASSESS THE HAZARDS OF RADON TOOK SMOKING
HISTORY INTO ACCOUNT, BUT THE Times IMPLIES THEY DID NOT AND THAT
THEREFORE THEIR CONCLUSIONS ARE FLAWED. ANYONE WITH EVEN MEAGER
KNOWLEDGE OF RADON'S HISTORY WILL FIND THE Times's OBVIOUS SELECTIVE
BIAS MORALLY OFFENSIVE AND JOURNALISTICALLY REPREHENSIBLE.
Soon we will examine the TIMES'S policy suggestions and begin a series
describing an alternative "new environmentalism."
 Merrill Leffler, "Bay Oysters: Battered by Disease," MARINE NOTES
[a University of Maryland Sea Grant Program publication] (September,
1992), pgs. 1-3.
 Barry Commoner, CLOSING CIRCLE (N.Y.: Knopf, 1971).
 Marilyn Fingerhut and others, "Cancer Mortality in Workers Exposed
to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-P-dioxin," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF
MEDICINE Vol. 324 (1991), pgs. 212-218; see also 8 volumes produced
thus far by U.S. EPA's "scientific reassessment of dioxin." EPA
document numbers EPA/600/AP-92/001a through h.
 Barbara Ruben "Root Rot," ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION Vol. 24 (Spring,
1992), pgs. 25-30; and Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman, MASKS OF
DECEPTION: CORPORATE FRONT GROUPS IN AMERICA (Washington, D.C.:
Essential Information, 1991).
 Frank E. Lundin and others, RADON DAUGHTER EXPOSURE AND RESPIRATORY
CANCER; QUANTITATIVE AND TEMPORAL ASPECTS (Springfield, Va.: National
Technical Information Service, 1971).
Descriptor terms: new york times; science; pollution prevention;
environmental policy; oysters; chesapeake bay; mercury; fish; lead;
children; sewage sludge; ocean dumping; fertilizer; nitrogen;
phosphorus; animal studies; laboratory animals; dioxin; wise use
movement; superfund; corruption; radon; radiation;