Sierra Magazine

Lay of the Land

Playing Chicken | 2020 Vision | Low Bench Marks | WWatch | The Hidden Cost of Gas | Sprawl | Bold Strokes | Updates

Playing Chicken With Disease

How industrial farming spawns drug-resistant "superbugs"

Penicillin seemed like a miracle when it was introduced in the 1940s: a drug that could cure previously devastating bacterial diseases such as pneumonia, syphilis, and meningitis. Some 60 years later, antibiotics are so commonplace we take them for granted.

But their power is dwindling. The widespread use of antibiotics on livestock–not to cure illness, but to stimulate growth and prevent disease–is creating drug-resistant "superbugs" that are difficult to kill. "Any time you expose bacteria to antibiotics, you’re creating survival-of-the-fittest pressure," says Karen Florini, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense. "The ones that are susceptible die; the ones that aren’t survive to breed rapidly."

Of the 35 million pounds of antibiotics administered each year in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that more than 70 percent go to livestock. Many of the antibiotics used on poultry, cattle, and pigs also fight life-threatening bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli in humans. Resistant forms of these microbes can spread to people through contact with raw or undercooked meat or through contaminated produce or water. "Bacteria share genetic instructions on how to outwit antibiotics, and your stomach is their university," says Florini. "When different germs trade resistances, you could end up with an untreatable disease."

Responding to these public-health concerns, in 1998 the European Union banned the "nontherapeutic" use (including livestock growth-promotion and disease-prevention) of essential human antibiotics; U.S. activists are pressing the Food and Drug Administration to do the same. In October 2000, the agency took a small step in this direction by asking two major drug manufacturers to stop selling an animal antibiotic in the fluoroquinolone family (a group that includes famed anthrax-fighter Cipro). When these drugs were approved for animals in 1995, only 1 percent of Campylobacter, the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning, was resistant to fluoroquinolones. By 1999, that number had jumped to 17.6 percent.

Faced with the possibility of a regulatory battle, Abbott Laboratories agreed to take its drug, Saraflox, off the market, but Bayer Corporation is still fighting the FDA. The Sierra Club, as part of a new coalition called Keep Antibiotics Working, is pressuring Bayer to withdraw Baytril (enrofloxacin), its version of fluoroquinolone for animals.

Limiting the use of antibiotics on animals may not completely stop the growth of antibiotic resistance (the drugs are also overprescribed by doctors) but it’s a good place to start. The same giant livestock facilities that pollute our air and water are also the perfect breeding grounds for super-tough microbes. Since disease spreads easily in the cramped, unhygienic conditions, drugs like Baytril are routinely added to animals’ drinking water.

Industry groups argue that such measures are necessary to preserve the safety of our food supply, but that safety is imperiled by the way factory farms are run. In 1997, the World Health Organization called for a ban on nontherapeutic application of human antibiotics to livestock, saying that animals need space, clean water, and high-quality feed instead. "If they were treating these animals better, they wouldn’t need these antibiotics in the first place," says Sierra Club representative Ed Hopkins. And the drugs would be left for people to use, safely and effectively. –Jennifer Hattam

Exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be reduced by switching to organic meat. See "Nothing to Beef About," page 24. Also check out the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s "Eat Well, Eat Antibiotic-Free," at To ask Bayer to withdraw Baytril, click on the "Take Action" link at the same site.

2020 Vision

Looking to a future where every fifth watt is green

Renewable energy is like your beautiful and talented best friend who can’t get a date. Even though the cost of wind power has dropped by almost 90 percent over the past 20 years and solar technologies are used in 200,000 homes, renewables remain stuck at about 2 percent of the national energy stream. The oil-friendly Bush administration has done little to help; its original budget proposed slashing research and development for renewables by almost half. (The funds were later restored by Congress.) And efforts to entice environmentally conscious consumers to pay extra for "green power" have attracted only a small number of energy altruists.

Now there’s a way to break the logjam. Twelve states have already adopted "renewable portfolio standards," firm goals to increase their percentage of clean energy. Connecticut, for example, hopes to generate 15 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2013. Instead of just using a government diktat to get there, they’re employing a method even conservative Republicans love: the power of the marketplace.

Here’s how the renewable portfolio standards work. To meet the benchmarks, generators or retailers can either produce green power themselves or buy "credits" on the open market from others who have exceeded their goals. The system rewards innovators who figure out how to produce renewable energy cheaply, since they lower their own costs and have more to sell to the dinosaurs. In Texas, the goal of producing 400 megawatts of renewable energy by 2002 was met ahead of schedule and even doubled because of the competitive cost of wind power.

A modest renewable portfolio standard is included in the Democratic energy plan, which was still before Congress at the time of this writing. The provision would require that 10 percent of the nation’s electricity be produced by new renewable sources by 2020. Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords is proposing a more ambitious national goal—strongly supported by the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists—of 20 percent from renewables by that year. If Jefford’s 2020 plan were combined with energy-efficiency programs, says a study by the UCS, consumers could save hundreds of billions of dollars. Who knows, the plan could even appeal to President Bush—he is, after all, the one who signed the original renewable-standard legislation in Texas. —Paul Rauber

Low Bench Marks

A hostile environment in the federal courts

It seems like only yesterday that conservatives were complaining about the "judicial activism" of liberal jurists. But when it comes to ideologically driven decisions, disregard of legislative intent, and creative reading of the Constitution, it would be hard to match the current crop of right-wing federal judges. Most of these were elevated to the bench by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. As detailed in Hostile Environment, a recent report by the Alliance for Justice, Community Rights Counsel, and Natural Resources Defense Council, these judicial Samsons are seeking to pull down the legal pillars that support much of our environmental law, replacing them with "states’ rights" and "property rights."

The hostility of many judges to environmental laws is quite overt. Last May, for example, District Court Judge Edward Lodge, a darling of the "wise-use" movement, overturned a proposed ban on roadbuilding in 58 million acres of national forest, citing insufficient public input–despite 600 public hearings and more than 1.6 million public comments. And in a dissenting opinion in National Association of Home Builders v. Babbitt, D.C. Circuit Judge David Sentelle ridiculed the Endangered Species Act for "prevent[ing] counties and their citizens from building hospitals or from driving to those hospitals by routes in which the bugs smashed upon their windshields might turn out to include the Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly." (In the case before him, the ESA did no such thing.) Another federal judge forbade New York’s Bedford High School from celebrating Earth Day, asserting that "[t]he worship of the Earth is a recognized religion."

A key goal of anti-environmental judges is trying to expand the takings clause of the Constitution. All this narrow provision requires is for the government to compensate landowners when it seizes their private property–for example, when a house is condemned to build a railroad. Anti-environmental judicial activists are reinterpreting the clause, claiming it requires compensation for government regulation of private property. In 1992, Justice Antonin Scalia led a Supreme Court majority in ruling for a would-be South Carolina beachfront developer who argued that his property had been "taken" by regulations that limited building in sensitive tidal areas. And in Tulare Lake Basin v. The United States, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled in favor of farmers who asserted that federal protections for salmon and delta smelt resulted in a "physical seizure" of the federally subsidized water that the farmers claim as a property right. "The federal government is certainly free to preserve fish," the court held. "It must simply pay for the water to do so."

Also being reinterpreted is the Constitution’s commerce clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate matters that affect interstate business. Since pollution from one state can harm the economic welfare of another, and animals that provide tourism and hunting income migrate from state to state, this clause provides federal authority for many environmental laws. But the commerce clause’s traditional protection of migratory birds couldn’t stop the Supreme Court from ruling last year that Cook County, Illinois, could dump its trash on the birds’ wetland home. And in a dissent in a case challenging federal protection for red wolves in North Carolina and Tennessee, Appeals Court Judge J. Michael Luttig rejected the idea that the presence of wolves might encourage tourism (amply demonstrated in Montana and elsewhere), and urged that the wolf protection be struck down.

Luttig’s dissent might not be so alarming were he not on the short list of possible Bush appointments to the Supreme Court. Already Bush has surrounded himself with members of the right-wing Federalist Society (including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton), and declared his favorite justices to be Clarence Thomas and Scalia, the foremost anti-environmental judicial activists on the high court. With one more like-minded justice, the court would have a solid anti-environmental majority that could set back environmental law by half a century. –P.R.

The report Hostile Environment is available at

W Watch: Keeping Tabs on George W. Bush

Back to Business

The September 11 tragedy focused the nation’s attention on immediate problems of Afghanistan and anthrax. But significant environmental decisions, rules, and announcements continued apace, below the public’s radar.

There were a few bright spots: In November, EPA administrator Christie Whitman announced that the Bush administration would uphold strict limits on arsenic in water, reversing its earlier decision to suspend them. And the agency is moving ahead with plans to force General Electric to dredge 1.65 million cubic yards of toxic PCBs from the Hudson River, despite protestations from the company.

But mostly, it has been business as usual: In October, the Bush administration rescinded the government’s authority to prevent miners from digging on fragile public land. Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, told a mining trade group that he wants to "reinvigorate" mineral exploration in national forests.

National Park Service officials announced in December that the plan to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will likely be delayed for several years–despite overwhelming citizen support.

Also in December, Rey, a former top timber industry lobbyist, approved logging on 46,000 acres of fire-scarred woodlands in Montana’s Bitteroot National Forest, circumventing the usual citizen appeals process. The agency wants to log at least 181 million board feet from the Bitterroot (more than the total harvest of the last 15 years) despite opposition from local residents and scientific evidence that shows logging increases sediment in streams. Calling Rey’s move "impetuous," a federal judge temporarily blocked the plan.
–Reed McManus

The Hidden Cost of Gas

Gasoline is cheap–or at least it appears to be. The average U.S. pump price at the time of this writing was $1.15, lower than it’s been in decades. One reason is that the real cost of gas is paid not at the pump but in your taxes, medical bills, insurance premiums, hours wasted in traffic jams, and the loss of open space. In 1998, the International Center for Technology Assessment tried to tally the hidden tolls, which ranged from outright government subsidies to oil companies (like the Percentage Depletion Allowance that lets them write off $784 million to $1 billion a year for oil they’ve already pumped) to providing military protection in the Middle East ($55 billion to $96 billion per year). Other effects are harder to quantify, like the social price of noise pollution, sprawl, and increased mortality through air and water pollution. Depending on the way the Center reckoned these factors, it came up with total external costs between $559 billion and $1.69 trillion a year. Using the higher figures, here’s how it might add up per gallon:

Tax subsidies, new roads, pollution cleanup: $1.01

Military and other protection: $1.05

Environmental, health, and social costs: $12.00

Total hidden costs of a gallon of gas: $14.14

Why Sprawl Is Hazardous to Your Health

1. It’s stressful. Thanks largely to sprawl, the average American driver spends 443 hours a year behind the wheel. (Federal Highway Administration; AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety)

2. It scars your lungs. All that driving pollutes the air, causing respiratory illnesses. When traffic was restricted in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, asthma-related emergencies dropped 42 percent. (Physicians for Social Responsibility; Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse)

3. It’s toxic. Suburban lawns are treated with more pesticides per acre than croplands, exposing residents to chemicals that can cause cancer and damage neurological and reproductive systems. (Environmental Media Services)

4. It spreads disease. As sprawl penetrates deeper into woodland clearings where deer thrive, deer-tick-borne Lyme disease has soared from 120 cases annually to almost 18,000 in the past 20 years. (Biodiversity Project; Lyme Disease Foundation)

5. It’s treacherous. Subdivisions are often built far from vital infrastructure like hospitals. Every minute a heart-attack victim waits for an ambulance reduces the chance of survival by 10 percent. (Biodiversity Project)

6. It pollutes your water. Each year, sprawl destroys 100,000 acres of pollutant-absorbing wetlands. (Sierra Club Challenge to Sprawl Campaign)

7. It limits your food choices. Locally produced food requires fewer pesticides and preservatives, but it becomes harder to find as sprawl destroys some half a million acres of farmland a year. (American Farmland Trust; USDA Economic Research Service)

8. It empties your wallet. Families in sprawling neighborhoods spend $1,300 more each year on transportation than those in denser areas. Wouldn’t you feel sick if you squandered your kids’ college tuition hauling them to kindergarten? (Surface Transportation Policy Project)

9. It can kill you. The more you have to drive the more likely you’ll be one of 43,000 annual traffic fatalities. (Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse)

10. It’s fattening. Carbound communities’ sedentary lifestyle has been linked to a 50 percent increase in obesity. Is it time to curb our appetite for development or for doughnuts? Probably both. (Washington Post, January 21, 2001; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases)

-- J.H.


AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “Aggressive Driving: Three Studies,” March 1997.

American Farmland Trust, “Farming on the Edge,” March 1997.

Biodiversity Project, “Making the Biodiversity-Sprawl Connection: Human Health Threats at a Glance,” December 2000.

Environmental Media Services, “Routes of Multiple Exposures to Pesticides.”

Federal Highway Administration, “Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey,” 1995.

Lyme Disease Foundation, Inc., “Cases of Lyme Disease Reported to the Centers For Disease Control, 1980 - 2002.”

National Geographic, “Urban Sprawl,” July 2001.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “Statistics Related to Overweight and Obesity,” July 1996.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, “No Room to Breathe: Air Pollution and Primary Care Medicine.”

Sierra Club Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, “Sprawl Factsheet.”

Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse, “Creating A Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health,” November 2001.

Surface Transportation Policy Project / Center for Neighborhood Technology, “Driven to $pend: The Impact of Sprawl on Household Transportation Expenses,” November 2000

USDA Economic Research Service, “Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2000 (Section 1.1: Land Use),” September 2000.

Washington Post, “Suburbia’s Road to Weight Gain,” January 21, 2001.

Bold Strokes

Show Me the Water
In a move so sensible it’s shocking it took so long to make, California has passed a law requiring developers to prove there is a 20-year supply of water before they are given permits to build subdivisions with more than 500 units. The Association of California Water Agencies opposed the legislation, arguing that it would be difficult to determine the future availability of a shared resource, and Southern California’s conservative Orange County Register opined that the law was "a sop to the state’s left-wing anti-growth forces." But the common-sense contingent, which in the end included the building industry, won out. For the first time in California’s history, statewide government policy has linked land-use and growth issues to water supply.

Saved by the Book
Ancient trees in Canada will live to tell their story, thanks to Random House Canada, Penguin Canada, McClelland & Stewart, and 17 other publishers. The companies have pledged to print their books on ancient-forest-free paper by 2004. With consumption of paper growing twice as fast as that of any other wood product, and with one-third of all trees logged used for paper production, the move by Canada’s literati is going to save many forest giants. Kinko’s and the Body Shop have already signed similar pledges, and best-selling Canadian author Alice Munro has asked that her next book be printed on the eco-friendly paper.
–Marilyn Berlin Snell


Airport Grounded. After a seven-year battle, both the Miami-Dade County Commission and the U.S. Air Force rejected a proposed commercial airport at the former Homestead Air Force Base, at the edge of Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. The Sierra Club and other groups had opposed the airport, which would have hosted 236,000 jet flights a year, plaguing local residents and ecosystems with air, water, and noise pollution. (See "Home Front," July/August 1999 and July/August 2000.)

¡Vivan las Monarcas! Each fall, more than 100 million monarch butterflies make an amazing 3,000-mile migration from eastern Canada to the Sierra Chincua in central Mexico. Logging of the oyamel firs they flock to has been encroaching on the area's five monarch sanctuaries. In November, Mexican president Vicente Fox announced the creation of a $6.1 million monarch trust fund that will pay local residents to stop cutting trees, thereby protecting the butterflies' haven and the peoples' livelihood. (See "Dangers in Paradise," July/August 1992.)

Monumental Struggle. First, the good news: In November, a Washington, D.C., judge dismissed a legal attack on our newest national monuments filed by Interior Secretary Gale Norton's former employer, the Mountain States Legal Foundation. The conservative group had challenged President Clinton's creation of six monuments under the Antiquities Act. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Department of the Interior) had been quietly preparing the bad news: revised guidelines for its monument managers. Environmentalists say that these rules, released last October, will weaken protection of the public lands, opening them up to more power lines, increased off-road-vehicle use, and hunting of mountain lions, coyotes, and other predators. (See "Six Million Sweet Acres," September/October 2001.)

No Bombs in Big Sur. Environmentalists, the Salinan National Indian tribe, and Benedictine monks took on the U.S. Navy -- and won. In November, the Navy dropped its plans to greatly increase use of Fort Hunter Liggett, a training site near California's rugged Big Sur coast and Ventana Wilderness. Instead of cringing at the roar of fighter jets dropping thousands of practice bombs each year, residents and visitors will continue to enjoy bald eagles and California condors soaring over the breathtaking coastline. (See "Home Front," July/August 2001.)

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