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Environmental Decisions Lack Ethnic Justice - Gore

Vice President-elect wants communities to have legal power to block some projects

January 12, 1993

THE following are excerpts from a recent interview with Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr., a leading environmentalist.

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How would you characterize recent trends in the environmental movement?

There has been an explosion of activity and concern at the grass-roots level. This is the fastest-growing political movement in the country and in the world. Many people who previously gave little thought to the environment are now recognizing it as among their core concerns.

How have the national, mainline environmental groups based in Washington and New York been adjusting and changing their strategies and tactics?

There has been a lot more emphasis on the local dimensions of the issues and a much greater recognition of the desirability of market-based solutions, much more political realism and sophistication, much more involvement in the details of the political process. All over the country some of our best and most effective volunteers and precinct captains [in the Clinton-Gore campaign] were environmentalists. They were extremely determined, very effective, very committed, and very savvy.

You mentioned market-based solutions.

The feasibility of some such solutions depend upon the continued growth of political consensus in the country to support such measures, and I think that's now occurring. But it's a dynamic process and we're not there yet.

One of the criticisms lodged against the mainline environmental groups is lack of minority representation within its membership and staff; and also concern about pollution faced by people in cities, and minorities there especially.

What I would call the environmental justice movement has really gained tremendous momentum just in the past two years. The United Church of Christ several years ago published a landmark study ... and they have followed that up with other reports, including one just three months ago on the enforcement of environmental laws and [variation in] the stiffness of penalties depending upon the ethnicity of the victim. And John Lewis [(D) of Georgia] in the House of Representatives and I in the Senate both introd uced and co-sponsored the Environmental Justice Act last year, which has been the focus of a great deal of activity by civil rights groups in alliance with environmental groups.

What would this Act do?

It empowers the citizens of a local community victimized by high concentration of environmental threats with the ability to intervene in ongoing proceedings - siting decisions and so forth - and it empowers them with the ability to get scientific help in analyzing the nature of the threat posed.... Where there is a large concentration of pollution sources in a particular neighborhood, this will make it possible to look at the cumulative threat to the air and the water. In other words, it takes the point of view of the people instead of the smokestack. This really needs to be passed. It also represents a bridge between the civil-rights movement and the environmental movement, and there's a lot of traffic going in both directions across that bridge.

A counter movement has evolved in the last couple of years. Were you in a position to observe that in the Senate? Where do you think it springs from, and why?

It's a combination of two groups of people. First of all, individuals who have grievances against the application of environmental laws and regulations that have effected their own property or their investments, especially in areas of the western United States where a very high percentage of the land is owned by the Federal Government. [Also,] commercial interests that want to make use of public resources in ways that the vast majority of the American people would find unacceptable. And the latter group

has provided a lot of money which has served to create the impression that the former group is much larger than it really is.... There are some legitimate grievances, no question.

There are corporations that seem to be making a true effort to inject an environmental sense in the way they do business. What's the size and the scope of such things?