The toxic lead-tainted earth that crunches under Rebecca Jim’s feet when the environmental activist visits Tar Creek in northeast Oklahoma reminds her that in the United States today, the “polluter doesn’t pay.”
Lead and zinc mining over a century turned Tar Creek orange, poisoned residents, and made it the nation’s first Superfund toxic cleanup site in 1983. But a quarter century later, the federal cleanup fund is broke and the 40-square-mile area dubbed the “worst toxic waste site in the nation” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still a mess.
High on the Christmas wish list for Ms. Jim and other environmentalists is fixing Tar Creek by restoring the Superfund with fees on polluting companies. Such funding would also help clean up some 1,200 other languishing sites nationwide – and that’s just the beginning.
An enormous environmental tally awaits the incoming Obama administration. After an eight-year pitched battle with the Bush administration, environmentalists see a golden opportunity
to begin making progress on issues ranging from climate change and water pollution to mountaintop-removal coal mining and energy efficiency in autos and buildings.
The massive environmental mountain awaiting Mr. Obama’s administration is chronicled in a 359-page wish list of hundreds of problems the environmental community is eager to start addressing once President Bush leaves town.
High on the list is retightening regulations made lax in myriad ways or even gutted during the Bush years to favor industry, these greens say.
“We’re emerging from the dark ages of pollution to a president that understands climate change and how to use green jobs as a way to build the economy of the future,” says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. “It’s a message for the 21st century. In that context, the environmental community has put forward an exciting agenda.”
Remarkable for its specificity and breadth, the “Transition to Green” report by 28 environmental groups offers the Obama team a road map for policy changes across 95 core issues and 29 federal agencies – from the EPA and the Interior Department to the Department of Homeland Security.
Proposals fit four broad categories:
Energy and jobs. Economic vitality, clean energy, and climate solutions go hand in hand, the report says. Investing in clean energy, if done right, will generate millions of jobs.
Environmental justice. Instead of locating waste dumps and dirty power plants in low-income communities, a shift should bring hybrid cars and solar panel construction jobs to such neighborhoods.
Science-based decisionmaking. Instead of political ideology, federal agencies should set their agenda using scientific consensus.
Integrity and transparency. Instead of “midnight” rulemaking and catering to industry’s desires on environment, agencies should return to a fair and open approach to regulation, the report says.
“This administration has been much, much worse for the environment than even the Reagan administration,” says Don Barry, a former assistant secretary for the US Fish and Wildlife Service who co-edited the “transition” report. “This is why the urgency felt this time is probably much greater than ever before.”
Environmental justice will get a lot more attention under President Obama, environmentalists hope. One key recommended policy change would repair an overlooked public-reporting requirement that until recently provided citizen activists with one of their most powerful weapons against industrial pollution: the Toxics Release Inventory or TRI.
In 2004, a Louisville, Ky., neighborhood group called the Rubbertown Emergency Action Committee compared EPA air-monitoring data and TRI data to try to identify polluters. The result was a citywide strategic air-pollution reduction program to reduce 18 toxic chemicals.
Such efforts would be difficult or impossible today, given the EPA’s 2006 reduction in TRI reporting requirements. Luke Cole, director of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, whose group has also used TRI data to fight pollution affecting low-income Californians, says restoring that statute is vital.
“TRI is critical in terms of accountability and a community’s right to know,” he says. “The only way to know what is going into the air in your neighborhood is if the plant nearby is required to tell you.” The TRI change, he says, has “given polluters a free pass to pollute in secret.”
Similarly, since the Superfund cleanup fund ran dry at the start of the Bush years, the government has had to pay for cleanups with taxpayer money – or else bargain with companies to pay for part of it. But that has meant painfully slow progress at the many sites that are so often near low-income, multiracial communities.
The new “Transition to Green” report urges that funding be restored – a welcome change, says Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Falls Church, Va.
“Superfund is a disaster,” says the veteran activist, who earned her pollution-fighting spurs battling the infamous Love Canal toxic site in her Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood. “We’re hoping at this point that the Obama administration and Congress will make it a priority. Right now, it’s totally broke.”
Instead of a steady supply of fees from toxic-material manufacturers, the fund gets just enough from the federal budget each year to go to sites that meet the criteria and do what Ms. Gibbs calls “band-aid measures.”
EPA officials say Superfund has not been crippled. Significant cleanup is occurring and the agency remains “committed to the principle of ‘polluter pays’ and holding private parties responsible for cleanup costs,” says Latisha Petteway, an EPA spokeswoman, via e-mail.
EPA collected $1.9 billion from companies to pay for cleanups this past fiscal year, and the program is “making significant progress in all aspects of site cleanup, exceeding its goals,” Ms. Petteway writes.
Regarding TRI reporting requirements, she writes, “No facilities were relieved of reporting responsibilities under the rule and no chemicals were removed from the list for which reporting is required.”
Pulling back on the full-blown exploration for oil and gas on public lands with wilderness characteristics is another critical goal of environmentalists. Many of these lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is charged with balancing uses among outdoor activities and development.
In Utah, for example, some 276,000 acres of public lands will be leased at a Dec. 19 auction for oil and gas exploration. Among them are tens of thousands of acres of some of the nation’s wildest lands, including parcels near the rugged Desolation Canyon and White River areas. In Colorado, already-leased land atop the Roan Plateau, a biologically significant area largely unaffected by nearby development, could see new oil and gas development any day.
“All the lands on the Roan have been leased, but not yet drilled,” says Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society, who recalls some truly silent nights camping atop the plateau.
“But so long as there’s no physical damage, there’s still an opportunity to keep this wild land wild. But as soon as the drilling rigs get in, there’s no return.”
But the Roan is hardly pristine; it has miles of roads, says a BLM spokesman in Colorado. Meanwhile, in Utah, where the National Park Service initially protested it had not been given time to comment on leasing key parcels, the BLM denies that leases are now being accelerated to get the land leased before Obama takes office.
“We have a mandate to offer leases on a quarterly basis in response to industry demand,” says Terry Catlin, energy team leader in BLM’s Utah region office.
In the end, 24 of the 93 “parcels of concern” (84,000 of the 139,000 acres) cited by the Park Service were removed from the lease auction, according to a report by “Land Letter,” an environment newsletter.
To green advocates, the bottom line is that an across-the-board reevaluation and shift in federal activities and priorities is desperately needed to save the environment. Obama may be listening.
“We’ve already had feedback from the Obama transition team saying the report we did was extremely helpful to them,” Mr. Barry says.