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The Planet

September 1997, Volume 4, number 7

Anatomy of a Victory--Club Cheers Cleaner Air

by Jenny Coyle

If ever there was an environmental fairy tale with a happy ending, the fight for new clean-air standards is it.

Sierra Club advocates worked to guarantee the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed standards safe passage past the Big Bad Wolf polluters and politicians into Grandmother's kitchen -- in this case, the White House.

On July 16, with Vice President Al Gore at her side, EPA Administrator Carol Browner signed into law the stricter regulations on soot and smog. The new rules establish first-time limits on soot -- tiny particles that are by-products of burning fossil fuels -- and reduce allowable levels for smog from 120 to 80 parts per billion. The changes are expected to prevent 15,000 respiratory-related deaths each year and bring relief to the 5 million American children who suffer from asthma, a disease aggravated by air pollution.

"Lives will be saved, and a legacy of cleaner air will be left to our children and future generations," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "These standards mean fewer sick days for workers, lowered health-care costs and more kids in school instead of in emergency rooms."

The new regulations may also reduce the number of sudden infant death syndrome cases. A study conducted by scientists at the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control revealed a 26 percent higher incidence of SIDS in highly polluted areas than in areas with clean air.

The many Club volunteers and staff members who worked for the improved standards -- deemed by the New York Times "one of the most important environmental decisions of the decade" -- are jubilant about the outcome.

"This was a chance for volunteers to be part of a national debate and to really see their work have an impact. The whole thing was a perfect campaign with a happy ending," said Susan Sargent, vice chair of the Club's Maine Chapter. Kathryn Hohmann, the Club's director of environmental quality, said the clean-air message worked because "we made it personal. We told people about the real-world impacts: kids with asthma, the suffering of elderly people. It shows that environmentalists can put together a program and beat 20 million dollars worth of industry rhetoric, particularly when the industry is telling giant lies."

The Big Bad Wolves are still lurking outside Grandmother's house. Rep. Ron Klink(D-Pa.) has introduced H.R. 1984 which would place a four-year moratorium on the new standards and fund further research; Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is expected to introduce a similar bill. Meantime, on July 18 the American Trucking Association and five other groups filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to block implementation.

But the standards are getting strong support, too. "Dear Colleague" letters have been introduced in the House by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), and in the Senate by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.). So the battle rages on.

During the campaign, Club members proved that they know how to keep flexing their grassroots muscles. They jumped into the fray when the EPA introduced the new standards for soot and smog in November and held hearings in Chicago, Boston, Salt Lake City and Durham, N.C.

For the hearing in Chicago, the Illinois Chapter got supporters to sign up early. A dozen of the first 15 speakers testified in favor of the standards -- while the press was still there. When a substantial portion of the state's congressional delegates signed letters opposing the regulations, Club members met with the press, held citizen workshops, and tabled at events. Later, after President Clinton endorsed the new rules, three Club volunteers painted a huge thank-you banner and held it up outside of a hotel where Clinton was speaking at a fundraiser.

Susan Sargent in Maine said the state's two representatives came on board easily, but Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, "wanted to sit it out." Sargent convinced the editorial boards of Maine's seven daily newspapers to write editorials supporting the new standards. "Every day for a week I was able to fax the senators all these editorials," she said. The effort was helped by Hohmann's visit to the state during her critical May 26-June 6 "Where's Al?" tour, calling attention to Gore's silence on the issue. "The whole thing worked really well, having it happen on the grassroots level with national Club support during Kathryn's visit," said Sargent. The two Maine senators eventually sent Clinton letters in favor of the new rules. "That was a big finish," she said.

Great Lakes Specialist Glenn Landers said Cleveland Club members already had Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on their side. (See sidebar.) They supported his efforts, and presented him with an oversized certificate of thanks at a victory party on July 19.

In Salt Lake City, Utah Chapter Conservation Chair Nina Dougherty and other volunteers held a clean-air rally, distributed postcards door-to-door and at various events, and presented Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) with 5,000 postcards urging him to support the new standards. "Anyone coming to the 2002 Olympics should thank us for our work on this," Dougherty said.

The clean-air campaign also got a boost from Mark Bettinger, the Club's associate representative for the Northeast, and Victoria Simarano, associate representative in the public education campaign. Simarano organized a Mother's Day event in front of the White House, where mothers of asthmatic children called on Clinton to clean up our air. Other hard-fighting volunteers included the Air Committee Chair Bob Palzer, and past chair Nancy Parks. Sierra magazine gave excellent coverage to the campaign. The Club's development department distributed hundreds of thousands of letters and postcards on clean air.

During the battle, the Club was joined by public-health and environmental activists of many stripes, including mothers of asthmatic children. Activist moms Maureen Damitz of Illinois and Toby Liebowitz of Rhode Island were especially instrumental in bringing this message home.

"This six-month effort represents what is best about the Sierra Club," said Bruce Hamilton, director of conservation. "We set our sights high, never lost faith, worked our hearts out, and ultimately prevailed against tremendous odds."

To take action: Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202)224-3121 and tell your representative to sign the Waxman/ Boehlert letter, and senators to sign the Lieberman/D'Amato letter. Call President Clinton at (202)456-1111 and thank him for his endorsement.

For more information: Contact Bob Palzer, (503) 520-8671;

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