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October 1996
Clinton's Environmental Record

By Paul Clarke

 


On Earth Day 1996, Bill Clinton and Al Gore took the opportunity to paint themselves green by participating in a river clean-up/photo op in Virginia. At the same time they were sweating for the cameras, activists from Greenpeace were cruising the Anacostia River in inflatable boats to draw public attention to a newly-discovered source of massive PCB contamination on this river: the United States Navy. This kind of high-level contamination is occurring in the governments back yard, while the Clinton administration has focused more on environmental image than environmental policy.

Clinton's Earth Day reliance on style over substance should not be surprising, given his administrations record on several major issues regarding the publics exposure to toxic chemicals. What is alarming is that these same issues have been pushed to the side in the months approaching the election, and Clinton is not being held accountable for his caving in direct response to pressure from the pollution lobby.

Consider these examples of what the Clinton Administration did, or is proposing to do:

Reversed a 17-year ban on importing PCBs, solely to benefit the overbuilt U.S. incineration industry to the tune of $50 to $150 million a year. Because PCBs are such a dangerous class of chlorine-based chemicals which have been tied to many adverse health effects in humans and animals, Congress passed the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) in 1974. This Act banned the manufacture and import of PCBs and outlined steps for a PCB phaseout from U.S. industries. Pressure from citizensĚ groups for toxics-use reduction and pollution prevention has worked so well that many of the dirty burners of hazardous waste are now short on toxic materials to burn. However, lobbyists for the incinerators recently convinced President Clinton that lifting the ban on PCB imports and incineration would be good for their business. This is a nasty form of corporate welfare for an extremely toxic industry.

Is proposing to gut regulations on the ocean dumping of 450 million tons of harbor-dredged sediments contaminated with dioxin, PCBs and heavy metals. The use of our oceans as a toxic dumpsite has led to devastating consequences for marine life, and resulting impact on commercial fisheries and the communities that depend on these fish for food. Plans to dredge and dump dioxin-tainted sludge have been met with staunch opposition by groups as diverse as environmentalists, fishing communities, and Vietnam veterans.

Is proposing to repeal the Delaney Clause that prohibits cancer-causing pesticides from being added to processed foods (e.g. baby foods). Proposed řreformsÓ in pesticide legislation would exchange the Delaney Clause for a negligible risk standard, which institutionalizes cancer risks. Rather than weakening the Delaney Clause, Clinton should expand it to prohibit carcinogens in raw foods as well as processed foods, and other toxic pesticides should also be phased out.

Has delayed by at least one year Clean Air Act regulations on medical waste incinerators, and is likely to propose much weaker regulations next year. The EPA estimates that there are 6,700 medical waste incinerators in the U.S., and that these incinerators spew 53% of total known dioxin emissions into the air. Burning medical waste results in the release of dioxin for two reasons: the first is the large amount of chlorine in the waste stream, mainly from polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC); the second is the fact that because these incinerators are small, emissions are not well controlled.

Is about to weaken regulations to promote the incineration of sludge from sewage which contains heavy metals, dioxins and other toxics. Although currently only a small amount of sewage sludge is burned, sludge incinerators in the U.S. release a significant amount of dioxin.

Is about to retreat on regulations for the pulp and paper industry that will allow the industry to continue using chlorine dioxide bleaching. While the pulp and paper industry has been leaping on the environmental bandwagon by shifting away from the use of elemental chlorine, the alternative, chlorine dioxide bleaching, is still a polluting process that threatens our rivers and the communities that depend on them. This proposal will also undermine stronger state regulations on dioxin producing pulp and paper mills.

Retreated on promises during and after the 1992 campaign to prohibit the start up of an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. This hotly contested incinerator is located 1,100 feet from an elementary school in a predominantly low income African-American neighborhood. During the 1992 campaign, candidates Clinton and Gore promised that this incinerator would not receive permits for a test burn until the General Accounting Office completed a full investigation of the facility. Once in office, this promise was quickly forgotten.

Retreated on campaign promises to implement a moratorium on new hazardous waste and garbage incinerators. Municipal incinerators are the second largest source of dioxin in the U.S., with between 170 and 190 burners spewing contaminants across the entire country, affecting even communities located great distances away.

Retreated on his own proposal to řallowÓ the federal government to buy totally chlorine-free (TCF) paper and is now wavering on the current procurement policy to purchase recycled paper. After pressure from paper industry lobbyists, Clinton dropped plans to shift government usage to paper that does not generate dioxin in the manufacturing process. Several states, including Vermont, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington are purchasing paper products that do not create dioxin; Seattle and Chicago have also passed paper procurement laws favoring non-chlorine bleached paper products.


The message from these few examples is clear:

Clinton needs to be held accountable by mainstream environmentalists and grassroots activists across the country for his broken promises and his caving in to the pollution lobby. The past four years have been about Bill Clintons environmental style; now we need the substance.

Paul Clarke works for Greenpeace. He lives in New Jersey.

 


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