Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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Table of Contents

The Planet
State of the States

The Club in the Capitols

By John Byrne Barry

  • Fighting Fire with Fire in Phoenix
  • California Scheming
  • Forming Alliances with Family Farmers In the Heartland
  • Holding the Line in Lansing
  • Winning Rural Allies in Georgia

When Vermont state Sen. Matt Krauss introduced an "audit privilege" bill that would allow companies that do internal audits of their environmental compliance to avoid penalties, Sierra Club lobbyist Ned Farquhar wasn't sure what to think. On the face of it, such a proposal, which encourages corporations to comply with environmental rules through self- policing, didn't seem too threatening. "But the bill was being pushed in Vermont by companies like General Electric under the guise of protecting small business," says Farquhar, "and somehow their altruistic intentions were hard to believe." Farquhar called on Club State Program Coordinator Paula Carrell in San Francisco, who briefed him on the status of various "pollution secrecy" bills in other states and how such laws could exempt reckless polluters from prosecution. He was not alone, she told him. Eighteen states had already passed audit privilege legislation and it had been defeated in at least 17 others.

Using some of the information that Carrell had collected from other states, Farquhar was able to educate Vermont legislators who themselves didn't understand the full scope of the proposed bill; soon after, it died in committee.

Farquhar's experience is not an isolated one. While the major media has focused on the Gingrich-led anti- environmental exploits in Washington, D.C., similar anti- environmental legislation has been popping up in state houses from Montpelier to Sacramento. The Club's state program has been facilitating communication between state activists to help fight bills from takings to audit privilege. [See box at right.] "When the state program began in 1990," says Carrell, a former California lobbyist, "a number of states had Club lobbying programs, but they were mostly unaware of what was going on elsewhere." Today, the Club has state-level lobbyists in almost every state, from volunteer lobbyists in Kentucky, where the legislature meets for just four months every year, to several full-time staff in California, which boasts a bigger economy than most countries. As a result of better networking and yearly meetings, Club state-level activists know each other and frequently share information and strategies.

Good communication between the Club's state-level volunteers and staff (and their federal counterparts) is especially critical, says Carrell, in light of what she calls the "fundamental betrayal" of deregulation. In Washington, she says, industry lobbyists are pushing to transfer environmental regulation to the states. Each state, they claim, will develop the best approach to solving its unique problems. "But these same industries are working in state legislatures to restrict states' authority to set environmental standards that are more stringent than the federal minimum."

Indeed, from Lansing, Mich., to Phoenix, Ariz., Club state- level activists view the move to devolve federal regulatory authority to the states with alarm. "The general public has this perception that the environment is in better hands with power located closer to home," says Lansing-based lobbyist Alison Horton, "but nothing could be further from the truth in Michigan." Arizona lobbyist Raena Honan is more blunt: "It's stupid to think that Arizona will protect the environment without any federal standards or oversight."

Fighting Fire with Fire in Phoenix

In Arizona, the conservative Republican political establishment is anxious to discredit the Sierra Club at every turn. But Raena Honan, herself a card-carrying Republican - a conservative, scripture-speaking, Christian, gun-owning environmentalist - knows her opponents find her difficult to attack. When Arizona's ubiquitous mining industry pushes for taxpayer bailouts to clean up their toxic sites, Honan stresses the fiscal conservatism that her opponents allegedly believe in and exposes the hypocrisy of supporting corporate welfare.

A journalist, advocate for children with disabilities and officer in her Republican women's club, Honan joined the Sierra Club in Phoenix three years ago, just in time to help Arizona volunteers like Sandy Bahr and Joni Bosh with the successful referendum that rejected one of the first state- level takings statutes.

For the past three sessions, she has been fighting a variation on the audit privilege/pollution secrecy legislation that Farquhar encountered in Vermont. This debate is tailor-made for Honan's conservative arguments. Since Arizona politicians want to be "tough on crime," she asks, why should they let environmental felons off the hook with immunity for their environmental lawbreaking? When Republican legislators heard Honan's argument that conservatives were using a convenient double-standard, she says "things got real quiet." That's when she knew she was making progress. (The audit privilege bill was defeated earlier this year.)

"Exposing the hypocrisy of my own party is an awful lot of fun," says Honan. "All you have to do is be there with the press and the public." By "public" she means the Club's 10,000 Arizona members, who she lauds as "totally the best volunteers. They hammer their legislature on these bills." In a state where environmental agencies are underfunded and politicians urge state officials not to cooperate with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Honan believes that the GOP notion of devolving all environmental authority to the states is nothing short of irresponsible. For her, the bottom line is exposing the real motives of anti-environmental proposals. "They say their agenda is conservative, but what it really comes down to is 'line my pockets, please.'"

California Scheming

Next door in California, which has been, until recently, a leader in environmental protection, Club lobbyist Bonnie Holmes is trying to stop what she calls "an avalanche" of anti-environmental bills passed by the Assembly - from a bill that would weaken drinking water standards to one that would eliminate the statewide air pollution reduction requirements of 5 percent per year. "There's a perception in the California legislature," says Holmes, who was Angeles Chapter conservation coordinator before going to Sacramento, "that the environmentalists had their cake in the '80s, and that now it's time for the pendulum to swing the other way and for businesses to recoup their losses."

Businesses are eager to gut California's stronger standards partly because the state has served as an example for other states and for federal legislation. The Clean Air Act of 1990 modeled many provisions on California's tough air quality laws. California's Zero Emission Vehicle program was copied by states in the Northeast.

"If our opponents can weaken California regulations, then their next step is to weaken the federal ones," says Holmes. Fortunately, she adds, the Democrat-controlled California Senate is likely to stop or amend most of the bad Assembly bills. Holmes can also count on a strong volunteer activist structure that can turn on the pressure when it matters most. "We have a home lobbying network coordinated by Los Angeles volunteer Joan Jones Holtz that can create a flood of messages to swing-vote legislators within days."

Forming Alliances with Family Farmers In the Heartland

In Missouri, a state with a tradition of environmental activism, even anti-environmental legislators ask Club lobbyist Ken Midkiff for the Club's position on bills before they vote. "They think we'll report their votes to their constituents - and they're right," Midkiff says with satisfaction.

Midkiff, who has worked for the 9,400-member Ozark Chapter for three years, has helped develop alliances with family farmers against takings, pollution secrecy and agribusiness bills. He has also helped establish a model for running relatively inexpensive radio ads on rural radio stations. In the last two years, the pollution secrecy advocates have kept Midkiff and company busy in Missouri, but the Ozark Chapter's radio ads in the sponsor's district - which ran 10 times a day for five days - generated considerable attention and helped defeat the bill. The ads "ruined the legislator's spring recess," says Midkiff, "and he let me know it." Missouri's legislature did pass a takings bill three years ago - albeit a weak one that required only an analysis of the impact of new regulations on private property. It expires next year, so Midkiff is already gearing up, along with his family-farmer allies, to defeat a repeat of it. Midkiff credits this coalition-building with passage of the state's landmark 1996 law creating substantial new regulatory authority to prevent pollution from mega- livestock operations. "It was remarkable that a rag-tag bunch of environmentalists and family farmers won on this issue," he says. "This bill was fought tooth-and-nail by every agribusiness interest in the state."

Perhaps because of these successes, Midkiff isn't alarmed at the move toward transferring regulatory authority from the federal government to the states. "It's easier to pressure state and local officials than the EPA or other federal officials," Midkiff says. The chapter used this reasoning to help defeat a bill prohibiting the state from having environmental laws stricter than federal regulations. In a Club-sponsored radio ad, an announcer asked listeners: "Who would you rather have make environmental policy? Missourians or federal bureaucrats?"

Holding the Line in Lansing

Midkiff's attitude toward devolution wouldn't work in Michigan. With both chambers of the state legislature and the governor's office dominated by anti-environmentalists, Mackinac Chapter Director Alison Horton doesn't spend much time wandering the halls of the capitol in Lansing. The political climate has become decidedly unfriendly to publicinterest groups, leaving the Sierra Club with a massive challenge - being heard. So Horton, fellow staffer Anne Woiwode and chapter volunteers are shifting their focus from buttonholing legislators to getting the word out to the press and the people.

Before the current administration, Michigan had a progressive polluter-pays law for cleanup of contaminated sites. One of the first major moves of Gov. John Engler's (R) administration was to seriously weaken it, shifting the burden to the taxpayers, leaving needed cleanups underfunded. The administration also succeeded in putting a pollution secrecy statute on the books and, after passing a takings measure, badgered the legislature into a record- breaking $100 million payout in a precedent-setting takings court case.

To combat the state government's hostile stance, the Mackinac Chapter celebrated Earth Day by announcing a Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality whistleblower protection program. The Club offered anonymity to state employees who came forward to talk about how they were prevented from doing their jobs. The administration "came unhinged" at this announcement, says Horton. "The DEQ spokesperson said the Sierra Club is a green organization because we have mold on our brains. The governor's press secretary accused us of being on a witch hunt." Michigan's environmental organizations alternate the job of appearing in legislative committee hearings to take the abuse. Since the lower house is just a few seats shy of a Democratic majority, which would break up the anti- environmental monolith, Horton says the upcoming election is especially critical. "We used to think of ourselves as a bi- partisan state and some of the best laws on the books came under Republican leadership, but there's not one real GOP friend of the environment now," she says.

Winning Rural Allies in Georgia

In Georgia, however, environmentally-minded legislators aren't split along party lines. Mostly, the division is between rural and urban interests. "We still have a large rural population that is friendly to us," says Georgia Chapter lobbyist Neill Herring, "because they perceive us as 'the only people down here looking out for rural Georgia.

On rural preservation issues, the Club has even found allies in the Forestry Association and the Farm Bureau. But the state Department of Transportation, is still trapped in a '50s growth mentality, says Herring, and thinks any problem can be solved with more lanes.

Herring launched his political career when, as a carpenter, he fought the power company's rate-hikes to pay for a proposed nuclear plant. That's when he first encountered the Georgia legislature, where he has now been representing the Sierra Club and other clients for nine years.

Working with volunteer leader Mark Woodall, Herring and the Club defeated a pollution secrecy bill in March with a little help from what he calls a "freak political accident." A farmer discovered that an underground petroleum pipeline was leaking under his orchard, contaminating the water, and that the leak was exempt from federal pollution reporting requirements. That farmer - ironically a member of the legislature - learned that under the secrecy provisions of Georgia's audit privilege law, the pipeline company could withhold evidence he might need in a lawsuit against it as "privileged."

Devolution of federal programs to Georgia would have the effect of "wholesale abandonment of regulations," says Herring, "When Georgia does the right thing, which is rare, they always blame the federal government for making them do it." For more information on the Club's state program, contact Paula Carrell at (415) 977-5668; e-mail:

Thanks to Raena Honan and Bill Craven for their contributions to this story.

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