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The Planet
Feds Say Let the States Do It...But States Aren't Up to It

Deregulation Taking Hold in State Capitols

by Ken Midkiff

What entity has been attempting (and in some cases, succeeding) in (1) preventing citizen-gathered data from being used by state and federal environmental agencies, (2) preventing counties from adopting strict rules limiting pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, (3) blocking funds for organic producers, (4) taking away the public's right to have input into water allocations, and (5) cutting budgets for environmental law enforcement?

If you guessed the Bush administration, you're wrong. While, no doubt, some of these measures would meet with the approval of Dubya, there are no presidential fingerprints on any of these rollbacks. Rather, these are the misbegotten brainchildren of states' legislatures. (Correct answers: the general assemblies in (1) Texas; (2) Florida, Texas, Missouri, other states; (3) Minnesota; (4) Idaho; and (5) Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and many other states.)

While the primary focus of the national Sierra Club and other groups has been on the shenanigans of the U.S. Congress and the president, much of the day-to-day protection of air, land, and water is assigned to state governments, especially enforcement. If, however, state agencies – such as the Texas Council on Environmental Quality or the Idaho Division of Water Resources – are prevented from doing their jobs by retrograde state laws, then the Bush administration's stated goal of being more "industry-friendly" will have been accomplished without the Congress or the White House having to lift a finger.

Of course, we have to keep an eye on Washington; after all, the federal government has much to say about what happens on national public lands, much sway on enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and what is or is not done in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But for the environmental quality in your backyard, it's what happens in the state capitols that counts.

Air pollution is typically monitored and regulated by state agencies, which issue water pollution/wastewater discharge permits. Even such matters as proper disposal of hazardous wastes and cleanup of waste sites are dealt with first by the states. In theory, the EPA is supposed to ride herd over the responsible state agencies, but that's actually rare. The EPA doesn't like "second-guessing," and normally signs off on state permits and state reports.

Fortunately, all Sierra Club chapters in the states have lobbyists (chapter staff, contractors, and volunteer leaders) who work to fend off bad stuff and push the good in both the state legislatures and administrative agencies.

It is likely no accident that many of the bills winding their way through state bodies this year were similar from one state to the next – industry advocates are quite well-organized. For instance, the bill on prohibiting local governments from regulating concentrated animal feeding operations more strictly than the state was introduced in state legislatures in Florida, Texas, and several states in the upper Midwest.

It passed in Florida and is awaiting action by the governor. The Florida state legislature seems intent on replacing Idaho as the leader in anti- environmental legislation; state representatives openly boasted of sponsoring "an industry bill." Susie Caplowe, Sierra Club lobbyist in that state, sums it up: "Polluters are getting off like it's a cakewalk."

Ironically, while politicians acting on behalf of the livestock industry enacted legislation to allow that industry to operate unfettered, the citizens of Florida voted to ban "gestation crates" at sow and farrowing facilities. It was clear to even the most obtuse observer that state politicos were not representing their constituents.

But state legislators all too often operate under the radar, and very few voters know what they are up to until the creek gets fouled, the air dirtied, or dry-cleaning chemicals pollute your backyard tomato patch. When you call to complain, you find out that such pollution is legal in your state. Fortunately, the Sierra Club lobbyists in many states have alert systems to keep Club members informed. To get connected to what's up in your state legislature, check the Sierra Club Web page – – and follow the links to your chapter's page.

It has long been recognized by Sierra Club members that city council members become county commissioners, then become state legislators and, finally, go to Congress. It is not unheard of for governors to become president. All the more reason to find, incubate, and promote environmental champions for state offices.

Ken Midkiff is director of the Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign and former Ozark Chapter director and lobbyist in what he calls Missouri's "Temple of Doom" – the State Capitol Building.

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