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#88 - What We Must Do -- Part I: The Moral Issue Of The '80s, 31-Jul-1988

The grass roots environmental movement is engaged in a struggle that
cuts to the heart of the American system. The outcome will determine
the kind of nation our children inherit. Government "of the people, by
the people, and for the people" is threatened by a massive, destructive
and unprincipled new industry--the waste haulers. What's at stake is
the health and safety of a large portion of the American people, the
fiscal soundness of hundreds of local and county governments, and the
democratic process itself. Can people REALLY participate in the
decisions that affect their lives?

In the fall of 1987, the FORT LAUDERDALE NEWS and SUN SENTINEL put a
team of five investigative reporters to work examining the garbage
industry in Florida. They found they had to look outside Florida to
understand the troubles Floridians are facing. The team examined
official records from 22 states and many federal agencies (the
Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange
Commission, the Justice Department and the FBI, among others), and
during December, 1987, they published a series of 25 articles on the
waste industry.

Some of their findings:

** American municipal and county governments are taking on public works
projects larger than any that have ever been attempted by local
governments before, racking up billions of dollars in public debt, just
to manage waste;

** these enormous public works projects are installing unproven
technologies that are often poorly designed and poorly built, often
dangerously polluting, and always enormously expensive; the projects
lock affected governments into a pattern of rising taxation and
spending that will hold for the life of the project, usually 25 to 35
years;

** a few enormous garbage haulers, who are increasingly in the landfill
business, the incineration business and the recycling business all at
the same time, are the sole beneficiaries of this unprecedented
outpouring of public funds;

** because modern garbage contains large quantities of dangerous
chemicals, what's at stake is not only the fiscal soundness of many
local governments but also the health and safety of a large portion of
the American public; if the waste industry has its way, whole states
will soon be blanketed with garbage-burning furnaces emitting tons of
tiny particles of invisible soot carrying toxic chemicals deep into the
lungs of the entire population; the residual ash--which is more toxic
than the original garbage from which it was derived-will be buried in
landfills that are certain to leak eventually, thus threatening many
communities' water supplies;

** the "titans of trash" who dominate the waste industry (chiefly Waste
Management, Inc., and Browning-Ferris Industries [BFI]) are growing at
the rate of 20% each year, thus doubling in size every 3.5 years. Waste
Management's gross income shot past the $2 billion mark in 1986; BFI
grossed $1.6 billion that year. Their net profits typically range
between 20 and 24% each year. The Wall Street Establishment is backing
these giants with large infusions of capital, lending them an air of
legitimacy as the titans gobble up their smaller competitors (while the
Justice Department's antitrust division stands idly by), consolidating
control of essential municipal services into the hands of a greedy and
unscrupulous few;

** the waste industry has developed a modus operandi based on bribery,
pricefixing, political payoffs, back door campaign contributions, the
intimidation and suppression of business competition, the distortion
and manipulation of technical data, and the systematic violation of
environmental laws and regulations;

** the waste industry seeks to counteract its outlaw image by
supporting civic projects like art centers; it supports high brow
programming on National Public Radio and on public television; and
waste executives have begun to sit on the boards of directors of those
national environmental organizations that will have them, such as the
National Wildlife Federation;

** when regulators take enforcement actions against waste haulers for
environmental violations, the companies resist vigorously, preferring
to litigate rather than cooperate. As a result, remedies are delayed
for years or are forestalled entirely; in the few instances where
enforcement actions succeed, the resulting fines are usually small and
amount to nothing more than a "license to pollute."

** the waste industry makes a general practise of hiring local
political officials as well as state and federal regulatory officials,
thus acquiring a stable of political influence and technical know-how
that leaves local, state and federal governments lacking sufficient
expertise and clout to effectively regulate the industry;

** this "revolving door" syndrome now threatens to weaken even the
environmental movement as well-known members of the traditional
environmental community go on the payroll and become apologists for the
polluters, carrying with them the knowledge and expertise they gained
as trusted environmentalists;

** the industry is now dealing with materials that are so toxic that
their safe disposal is a matter of major public health concern but
governments have become so dependent upon the industry that even when
the haulers violate all norms of decency and safety, government cannot
bar them from the business because government has no alternate way to
manage wastes;

** the waste industry has decided to develop its most dangerous
facilities in certain geographic areas, targeting regions of America
that are poor and rural, often with large minority populations.

** The struggle to manage waste sensibly and to bring the outlaw waste
industry to justice is--in the words of Wendell Paris of Emelle,
Alabama (a longtime civil rights activist, now a leader in the movement
for environmental justice)-"the moral issue of the '80s."

We will use the NEWS and SUN SENTINEL's series as the starting point
for examining WHAT WE MUST DO--a series in which we sketch the broad
outlines of a strategy the grass roots environmental movement could
adopt to take back America from the polluters. Most of the ideas we
will present are not original, but are derived from our friends,
colleagues, brothers and sisters across America locked in struggle at
the local level with one poisoner or another.

The 25 articles, by David Altaner, Jean Marbella, Jon Marcus, Robert
McClure, Rich Pierce, and Fred Schulte, are now available in the RACHEL
database; to retrieve the whole series, search on "SUN SENTINEL" in
database 7; alternately, send $12 and we'll mail you 85 pages of
xeroxed material.]

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: citizen groups; environmentalists; waste hauling
industry; health; organized crime; corruption; investigations; fl; msw;
epa; sec; doj; fbi; hazardous waste industry; waste treatment
technologies; leaks; federal; funding; health; incineration; ash;
particulates; landfilling; toxicity; water; groundwater; drinking
water; wmi; bfi; antitrust; price fixing; nwf; wildlife; regulations;
enforcement; revolving door; wendell paris; emelle, al; al;