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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2005
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Ways and Means
Phony Federalism
Threatening 30 years of progress against pollution

At a recent public hearing in rural Nebraska on the expansion of a huge hog-feeding operation, Sierra Club member Rosalie Gabel stood up holding a ziplock bag. Gabel, 70, had joined the Club a few years earlier, after the factory farm, with its open manure lagoon, moved in nearby. The bag contained a dish towel she had hung on her clothesline, clean. But when she took the towel out, the stench was so overwhelming that the county attorney tried to grab it from her and force it back into the bag.

Gabel and her neighbors live with that extreme air pollution every day because the nation's environmental laws can no longer guarantee their protection. The Bush administration and the radical right in Congress are turning back the clock on modern pollution control, while trying to strip citizens of their power to stop them.

What made the major environmental legislation of the 1970s so revolutionary was the recognition that while pollution's effects were felt locally, their solutions had to be national. Individual towns often lacked the legal authority to protect their citizens; when they did crack down on polluters, they would lose jobs and tax revenues to more-obliging communities. In addition, pollution does not respect political boundaries, so cleaning it up in one jurisdiction left residents vulnerable to dumpers upstream or upwind. Before 1970, Midwestern states addressed the issue of belching coal-fired power plants by locating them on their eastern borders, where the wind would make the emissions someone else's problem.

The bipartisan environmental consensus of the 1970s rightly saw that only consistent national standards and federal enforcement could make an industrial economy compatible with human health. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Superfund established rules to protect the public, assigned legal responsibility and authority to shut down polluters, provided funding mechanisms (often involving federal, state, and local partnerships), and gave citizens standing in the courts to ensure that all parties did their share. It worked. Emissions of toxic lead dropped 98 percent, and sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide by about a third, even as driving and industrial activity increased. The number of swimmable waterways doubled. Since 1980, of more than 1,600 sites contaminated by toxics, 297 have been cleaned up and 583 largely decontaminated.

The legislative safeguards, however, were not without gaps. Owners of older coal-fired power plants persuaded Congress to give them an unspecified amount of time to clean up or retire their plants. And new sources of pollution sometimes weren't recognized as such: The factory feedlots that are replacing family farms, for example, are still treated by regulators as no different from Old MacDonald's.

These loopholes in the nation's environmental defenses are now being ripped wide open. Industry-funded polemicists and politicians who deride national standards as inefficient "command and control" approaches argue that problems can be better solved at the local level. As this "New Federalism" works its way into federal regulation, we're slipping backward. Beginning in 2002, after 30 years of progress, the number of America's waterways the EPA classifies as "polluted" started to climb again. The federal government has slashed spending on clean water, even though the EPA estimates that the nation's sewage-treatment facilities need $390 billion over the next 20 years. (The New Federalist solution? A rule to allow cities to "blend" sewage with rainwater and release it, regardless of local concern.) Absent federal rules, state after state has tried to clamp down on factory feedlots. But when pressed, the facilities simply pick up and move someplace without regulations.

A reasonable way to balance federal and state roles was proposed by Bruce Babbitt in 1988 when he ran for president. Babbitt suggested we increase the state role in areas like roads and education, where states are the direct beneficiaries and have the most incentive to do the best job. But since they also have an incentive to attract industry by lowering their environmental standards, Babbitt argued that federal responsibility for those matters should grow.

Instead, George W. Bush and Congress have tried to give responsibility to whatever level of government is least likely to do a good job. When California required that automakers sell zero-emission vehicles in the state, the administration and auto companies sued. Yet when it came to deciding whether to build roads in wild areas of our national forests, the administration handed authority back to governors, who are most likely to be beholden to timber interests. And now some of Bush's nominees to the federal bench dispute the right of citizens to challenge the lax enforcement of environmental laws in court.

The New Federalists' goal is to undo the environmental revolution. But first they'll have to get past Rosalie Gabel and folks like her who helped convince Congress to nix the administration's sewage-blending proposal. These citizens have a better idea: Don't scrap environmental protections; just finish the job we started.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail

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