A few stolen plasma TVs are one thing. Now Gulf Coast residents cleaning up after last year's hurricanes face even greater plunder as the Republican-led Congress takes advantage of its emergency powers to recast antiregulatory wish lists as disaster relief.
In September, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) proposed legislation that would allow the EPA to waive or change any law under its jurisdiction for up to 18 months, ostensibly to expedite cleanup and rebuilding in the Gulf region. But the bill could also lift limits on the amount of air and water pollution emitted by refineries, motor vehicles, and other sources nationwide, cutting a swath through important health and environmental standards. Inhofe introduced it the day after EPA administrator Stephen Johnson told Congress he had all the authority he needed to deal with any fuel crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina. Another bill, sponsored by Louisiana senators David Vitter (R) and Mary Landrieu (D), would create a commission controlled by Louisiana residents to approve U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects—and exempt them from provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
Activists argue that a region so heavily industrialized needs environmental oversight now more than ever. Katrina flooded numerous Superfund sites and chemical plants and caused 7 million gallons of oil to spill in southeast Louisiana; according to some estimates, 70 million tons of hazardous waste remain unsecured on the Gulf Coast. And rebuilding without review will only repeat old mistakes: Erosion-causing navigation channels and canals, along with levees that steer delta-replenishing sediments far into the Gulf of Mexico, have contributed mightily to Louisiana's ongoing land loss, an average of 30 square miles per year.
The post-hurricane looting isn't confined to the Gulf. In October, Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex.) pushed his so-called Gasoline for America's Security Act through the House of Representatives, a grab bag of industry-friendly proposals left out of last summer's energy bill.
One of the storms' most distant casualties could be the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Spurred by increased concerns over energy supplies, at press time Congress was considering whether to allow drilling in the refuge as part of the budget bill for 2006.
Fool's Gold A Canadian mining company wants you to pay for its mess
All that glitters may be gall. Arguing that a California law requiring mining companies to clean up their depleted open-pit mines amounts to a seizure of property, Canada's Glamis Gold has filed a claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement demanding $50 million in compensation from the United States.
At Glamis's proposed site in Southern California, excavated rock would be piled up and drizzled with cyanide, a toxic solvent that bonds with gold. Such "heap leach" mining is cheap but environmentally costly, leading to cyanide spills and contaminated water. Glamis's operation would move at least 280 tons of earth to produce just one ounce of gold, creating a pit a mile across and 880 feet deep.
California's law, passed in 2003, requires that Glamis fill its pit once operations have ceased and restore the site. Such "backfilling" is one of the best ways to control acid-mine drainage and damage to waterways.
Glamis, however, claims that the cleanup rules are "tantamount to expropriation" as defined by the trade pact. A three-member tribunal will decide the merits of the case, probably in late 2006. The Sierra Club, concerned that a win for Glamis would restrict the ability of any sovereign government to protect its citizens, will file a "friend of the court" brief in July.
And this is one case that sorely needs friends. Defense of California's rules in the international forum falls to the Bush administration, which has a history of siding with mining interests: In 2001, Interior Secretary Gale Norton reversed a Clinton-era decision blocking Glamis's plan.
Join a Sierra Club outing in March to learn about the Quechan tribe's efforts to protect sacred sites threatened by Glamis Gold's mine proposal. For details, e-mail leader Joan Holtz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WWatch:KEEPING TABS ON WASHINGTON
MISSING THE BOAT Forty percent of the nation's fisheries are in decline, and nearly everyone agrees that current regulations aren't working. An obvious problem is that the fishing industry gets to decide whether a species is overfished. But the Bush administration's plan for overhauling the rules would allow overfishing to continue while rehabilitation plans are being developed—a process that could take years. The legislation would also eliminate requirements that depleted stocks be restored within ten years and that fishing fleets report the amount of marine life killed unintentionally.
HOG WILD Vice President Dick Cheney told us that conservation was "not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." But with petroleum and natural-gas prices soaring, the Department of Energy has bucked his advice with its new cartoon mascot, "Energy Hog." At its Web site, energyhog.org, kids are encouraged to look around the house for efficient appliances. The only catch is that qualifying furnaces, dryers, and air conditioners aren't readily available, thanks to the DOE's failure to set new efficiency standards for those and 13 other appliances. In fact, it hasn't issued any such standards since Bush took office, despite a congressional mandate to do so.
The Bush administration went all out after Hurricane Katrina—to scapegoat environmentalists, that is. In September, the Department of Justice asked federal attorneys if they had ever worked on "claims brought by environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede" efforts to protect New Orleans. In fact, in 1977, the Sierra Club (and fishing groups) opposed a 25-mile barrier east of the city—preferring higher levees instead. And in 1996, the Club delayed a Mississippi River levee-fortification project for two years. But those levees played no part in the recent flooding, and for that project, the Club had only objected to destroying wetlands, which protect cities from floods.
Bogged Down in Court
As an appeals court judge in 2003, John Roberts questioned his colleagues' decision to protect the "hapless" arroyo southwestern toad under the Endangered Species Act. Soon we'll know if federal environmental laws will be just as luckless under the Supreme Court Roberts now heads.
By summer, the high court will decide if the Clean Water Act protects wetlands that are on tributaries upstream from "navigable waterways." Over the years, Congress has justified federal involvement in state-level issues when they affect interstate activity. That has triggered Congress's right under the Constitution's commerce clause to enact laws as varied as the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
If the Roberts Court curtails legislators' ability to invoke the commerce clause, a host of health and environmental protections, including those affecting wetlands, will truly be endangered. —Reed McManus
San Francisco's famed tolerance doesn't extend to sweatshops. Last fall, it passed legislation requiring local manufacturers doing business with the city to pay fair wages, provide safe working conditions, and allow their employees to unionize. The ordinance, the most progressive of its kind in the nation, also requires government agencies to purchase organic, local, and fair-trade goods whenever possible. The city has already set aside $100,000 to enforce the new law.
Paper Bag It
After record monsoons killed more than 1,000 people in India last July, the western state of Maharashtra quickly banned the sale and use of plastic bags, which had clogged drains and contributed to the deadly flooding. Businesses in violation of the law will get smacked with a 5,000-rupee fine. That's about $110 for picking plastic over paper. (Individual violators will pay 1,000 rupees.) The bags, which litter city streets and remote Himalayan foothills alike, can take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate.
The City That Sometimes Sleeps
Hope is on the horizon for thousands of night-migrating birds that pass through New York City along the Atlantic flyway each year. Last fall, city officials and the local Audubon chapter announced the "Lights Out NY" initiative, which asks owners of tall buildings to turn off upper-story lights by midnight during the spring and fall migrations. Artificial lighting can dangerously disrupt birds' innate navigation systems; New York City Audubon estimates that since 1997 more than 4,000 have been killed or injured by colliding with buildings. Flipping the switch is good news for white-throated sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, and more than 100 other affected species—and for business owners, who will trim thousands of dollars off their energy bills annually.
Wholesome Good Looks
Hollywood celebrities (and other California consumers) can pamper themselves without risking their health, thanks to the state's Safe Cosmetics Act. Passed last fall, the new law is the first in the country to require cosmetics manufacturers to disclose the use of chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive problems. Health and environmental groups were key supporters of the bill, citing studies that have shown up to 70 percent of beauty products—from deodorant to hair spray—contain phthalates, industrial chemicals that may cause birth defects. For more information, visit safecosmetics.org. —Erin Pursell
The dust has finally settled in the decade-long debate over Utah's Legacy Highway ("Sierra Club Bulletin," May/ June 1999, page 72). Last November, the state legislature agreed to build a parkway along the Great Salt Lake wetlands instead of a freeway. Speed on the new road will be capped at 55 miles per hour, billboards will be restricted, and semis prohibited. The Legacy project will also include a 2,100-acre wetlands preserve.
A Big Tree Falls
Forest activist Joan Norman, 72 ("One Small Step," July/August 2005), died in an automobile accident as she was moving to a new home in Brookings, Oregon, on July 24. Her friends and admirers in the campaign to defend the wild Siskiyous honored her memory with a road blockade of logging trucks and a tree-sit in an old-growth grove scheduled for cutting.
Look What's Sticking
The EPA now says that the chemical used to make Teflon—perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA—is a "likely carcinogen." When Sierra wrote about it in "Watched Pots" ("Hearth & Home," September/October 2004), the agency considered it only a "possible carcinogen." The chemical, which in addition to cookware is found in Gore-Tex, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn, is present in the blood of nine out of ten Americans. The London Times has since reported that claims against DuPont, which makes PFOA, could total $40 billion.
Ford Catching On
After a slow start, the U.S. auto industry seems to be warming up to hybrid technology ("The Perfect Fix," July/August 2005). Ford Motor CEO Bill Ford is now promising that by 2010 half of its models will be available as hybrids (compared to two at present) and that the company will sell a quarter million of them a year. Even so, it will still be languishing far behind Toyota, which aims to sell 600,000 hybrids a year by that time.
Real Men Don't Eat Endangered Species
Environmentalists have figured out what Madison Avenue has known all along: Sex sells. A series of racy advertisements launched in Mexico last year to discourage men from eating sea-turtle eggs—a practice rumored to boost virility—has gotten plenty of attention, but not all of it from the activists' target audience. Women's groups have begun a countereffort against the ads, which they denounce as sexist. "They don't understand the goal of the campaign," noted poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis told the New York Times. "It is directed at ... the macho Mexican man"—who apparently needs to be reminded that contributing to the slaughter of cute endangered animals is hardly the way to a woman's heart. —Jennifer Hattam
Sticker Shock Your mileage will vary ... a lot
By now most of us know that American cars guzzle too much gas, with the national fleet reportedly averaging a paltry 25 miles to the gallon. But it turns out that they're even bigger gas hogs than previously thought. Recently, the editors of Consumer Reports magazine tested 303 new cars and trucks from model years 2000 to 2006 and compared their real-world gas mileages with their EPA ratings. Ninety percent of those vehicles got fewer miles per gallon than the feds said they would, and some got as little as half the mileage promised.
Some of the biggest discrepancies were for hybrid cars, which got between 11 and 25 fewer miles per gallon than their EPA ratings. (Even so, hybrids like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight topped the magazine's list of fuel-efficient vehicles.) But the shortfalls could be found in every category. The Honda Odyssey minivan, for example, rated at 20 mpg by the EPA, got a mere 12 mpg when tested by Consumer Reports. And the gap appears to be widening. The magazine found that while 2000-model cars sucked up 6 percent more fuel than the feds said they would, 2005 and 2006 models chugged 12 percent more.
It turns out that EPA fuel-efficiency ratings are calculated using a treadmill contraption called a dynamometer—creating a parallel universe where streets are free of traffic, highway speeds average 48 miles per hour, and a car's wheels never touch pavement.
The EPA admits that its method could stand to be updated, and it will propose new testing protocols soon. That makes automakers more than a little nervous. After all, if the agency calculated fuel efficiency the way the editors of Consumer Reports did, by driving anonymously purchased vehicles on a test track, few carmakers would meet even the weak federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.
Eron Shosteck, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, thinks he has a solution: lower CAFE standards. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, aren't impressed, and neither is the public. According to a recent poll by Yale University, 93 percent of Americans want cars and SUVs to be more fuel-efficient. —Dashka Slater
ON THE WEB
For information on Sierra Club efforts to increase fuel economy, visit iwillevolve.org.
Talk to the Hand Months after the hurricane, reporters are still left in the dark
Mark Schleifstein, the lead hurricane reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, had some urgent questions for the EPA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What kinds of toxic chemicals had been released into the floodwaters, and where were they coming from? There are 24 Superfund sites in the flood zone, and some 400 toxic-spill reports were filed in the aftermath of the storm. Certainly residents had a right to know what dangers they were facing if they returned to their homes.
But the EPA never answered Schleifstein's questions, not even after the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter filed a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A half-dozen other news outlets were just as frustrated by the agency.
A survey by the Society of Environmental Journalists reveals that data that was already difficult to get before September 11, 2001, has only become more elusive. "Information that we used to obtain with just a phone call now requires an FOIA request," says Ken Ward, a reporter for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette and chair of the society's First Amendment Task Force. But even those formal requests don't fare much better. Reporters from around the country say that agencies sometimes take more than a year to fulfill them. When journalists do get the documents they asked for, large sections are often blacked out. For that reason, many don't bother trying.
The society would like to see some teeth put into the FOIA, so that agencies that dawdle are punished with fines or other sanctions. But until that happens, reporters have no choice but to keep begging officials for timely information from the government. Says Perry Beeman, the society's president, "In a case like Katrina, where people's lives were on the line, they shouldn't have been dragging their feet." —Dashka Slater
Always Low Wal-Mart fails at tree-planting
Mega-retailer Wal-Mart seems an unlikely tree hugger. But last year, the company received the National Arbor Day Foundation's Award of Excellence, bestowed on an organization devoted to the cause of "tree-planting, conservation, and environmental stewardship."
The foundation was impressed by the retailer's claim that it had successfully relocated a 4.7-acre wetland that was in the way of its new 208,000-square-foot superstore in Oldsmar, Florida. "We took a stand to do the right thing and transplanted more than 1,400 trees," boasted Don Moseley, Wal-Mart's "experimental projects manager," in a press release. The pond-cypress ecosystem, he added, is "thriving" in its new location.
What Moseley neglected to mention was that "doing the right thing" was a precondition to getting a permit to fill in the original wetland. And it seems that Wal-Mart's definition of "thriving" is slightly different from the one used by most scientists. Sydney Bacchus, a hydroecologist who specializes in plant pathology, has visited the Oldsmar site—a stormwater-drainage pit at the back of the store—where she found the transplanted 80-foot pond cypresses "in severe death throes." Many had fallen over because they were planted "in submerged conditions" where it's impossible for their roots to anchor. So far, 83 have died. That doesn't surprise Bacchus, given that the trees are soaking in runoff from the parking lot. "Stormwater runoff is the nastiest, foulest stuff around," she says.
Bacchus argues that Wal-Mart should be recognized for killing trees rather than saving them. The retailer is famous for bypassing developed areas in favor of cheaper forestland. "Other than the mining industry," Bacchus says, "I can't think of a single nonresidential developer that could match the level of Wal-Mart's destruction of native trees in Florida." —Dashka Slater
Not Dead Yet Forest experts feel the ax
When the U.S. Forest Service wanted to allow logging of some of eastern Oregon's last old-growth trees, it turned to the Bush administration's so-called Healthy Forests Initiative, which permits dead or dying trees to be "salvage logged." The agency said that the trees in the Blue Mountains were dead, or would be soon.
The only problem? Eighty-five percent of those tagged for logging were perfectly healthy. In court, Sierra Club attorneys introduced a declaration from forest ecologist Bill Ferrell, who described the trees as "conclusively alive."
The agency's response was to submit a brief declaring that Ferrell himself was dead and that his testimony was therefore inadmissable. After Ferrell appeared in court, U.S. District Court Judge Garr King declared that both ecologist and trees were thriving and issued a preliminary injunction halting the timber sale. —Dashka Slater
Gulf Coast photo courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Lloyd Dangle