I am angry both as a citizen and a father. Three of my sons have asthma, and I have to watch them struggle to breathe on bad-air days. They are comparatively lucky: One in four African-American children in New York shares this affliction. Their suffering is often unrelieved because they lack the insurance and high-quality health care that keep my sons alive.
Further, my kids are among the millions of Americans who cannot enjoy the seminal American experience of fishing locally with their dad and eating their catch. Most freshwater fish in New York and all in Connecticut are now under consumption advisories. A main source of mercury pollution in America, as well as asthma-provoking ozone and particulates, is the coal-burning power plants that were recently excused from complying with the Clean Air Act.
Every federal agency that oversees environmental programs is involved in an effort to relax rules aimed at the oil, coal, logging, mining and chemical industries as well as automakers, real estate developers, corporate agribusiness and other industries. More than 200 major environmental laws have been rolled back, weakening the protection of our country’s air, water, public lands and wildlife.
The very agencies entrusted to protect Americans from polluters are laboring to destroy environmental laws. Or they’ve simply stopped enforcing them. The EPA has proposed eliminating 270 enforcement staffers, which would drop staff levels to the lowest ever. Inspections of polluting businesses have dipped 15 percent. Criminal cases referred for federal prosecution have dropped 40 percent. The EPA measures its success by the amount of pollution reduced or prevented as a result of its own actions. Last year, the EPA’s two most senior career enforcement officials resigned after decades of service.
I prosecute polluters on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.
Eleven years ago, I sued the EPA to stop massive fish kills at power plants. Using antiquated technology, power plants often suck up the entire fresh water volume of large rivers, killing obscene numbers of fish. Just one facility, the Salem nuclear plant in New Jersey, kills more than 3 billion Delaware River fish each year, according to Martin Marietta, the plant’s own consultant. These fish kills are illegal, and in 2001 we finally won our case. A federal judge ordered the EPA to issue regulations restricting power-plant fish kills. But that proposed new rule has been replaced by regulations designed to allow the slaughter to continue unabated.
The fishermen I represent are traditionally conservative and conservation minded. “Why,” they’ll ask, “are coal, oil, power and automotive interests allowed to fix the game?”
Our Environmental Heritage
It’s always been illegal to pollute. Clean-air laws in England, passed in the fourteenth century, made it a capital offense to burn coal in London, and violators were executed for the crime. These “public trust” rights to unspoiled air, water and wildlife descended to the people of the United States following the American Revolution. Until 1870, a factory releasing even small amounts of smoke onto public or private property was operating illegally.
But during the Gilded Age, when robber barons captured the political and judicial systems, those rights were stolen from the American people. As the Industrial Revolution morphed into the postwar industrial boom, Americans found themselves paying a high price for the resulting pollution. The wake-up call came in the late sixties, when Lake Erie was declared dead and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River exploded in colossal infernos.
In 1970, on the first Earth Day, more than 20 million Americans took to the streets protesting the state of the environment. Whether they knew it or not, they were demanding a return of ancient rights.
During the next few years, under President Nixon, Congress passed twenty-eight major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and it created the Environmental Protection Agency to apply and enforce these new laws. Polluters would be held accountable; those planning to use the commons would have to compile environmental-impact statements and hold public hearings; citizens were given the power to prosecute environmental crimes. Right-to-know and toxic-inventory laws made government and industry more transparent on the local level and our nation more democratic. Even the most vulnerable Americans could now participate in the dialogue that determines the destinies of their communities.
But in 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan declared, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel,” marking a major turning point of the modern anti-environmental movement. James Watt was chosen as Secretary of the Interior. Watt was a proponent of “dominion theology,” an authoritarian Christian heresy that advocates man’s duty to “subdue” nature. Secretary Watt’s deep faith in laissez-faire capitalism and apocalyptic Christianity led him to set about dismantling his department and distributing its assets rather than managing them for future generations. During a Senate hearing, he cited the approaching Apocalypse to explain why he was giving away America’s sacred places at fire-sale prices: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
EPA’s budget was cut by 60 percent, crippling its ability to write regulations or enforce the law. Lobbyists fresh from their hitches with the paper, asbestos, chemical and oil companies were appointed to run each of the principal agency departments.
These attacks on the environment precipitated a public revolt. By 1983, more than a million Americans and all 125 American-Indian tribes had signed a petition demanding James Watt’s removal. After being forced out of office, Watt was indicted on twenty-five felony counts of influence-pedaling.
The indictments and resignations put a temporary damper on the Sagebrush Rebels, but they quickly regrouped as the “Wise Use” movement. Wise Use founder, the timber-industry publicist Ron Arnold, said, “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement. We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely.”
By 1994, Wise Use helped propel Newt Gingrich to the speaker’s chair of the U.S. House of Representatives and turn his anti-environmental manifesto, “The Contract With America,” into law. Gingrich’s environmental policy targeted the Endangered Species Act as the second-greatest threat to Texas after illegal aliens.
But the public got wise. Moderate Republicans teamed up with the Clinton administration to block the worst of it. My group, the NRDC, as well as the Sierra Club and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, generated more than one million letters to Congress. When President Clinton shut down the government in December 1995 rather than pass a budget bill spangled with anti-environmental riders, the tide turned against Gingrich. By the end of that month, even conservatives disavowed the attack, conceding they’d lost the battle on the environment.
The tide has now changed again. During her nomination hearings, Interior Secretary Gale Norton promised not to give agency science an ideological slant. But as her friend Thomas Sansonetti, a coal-industry lobbyist who is now assistant attorney general, predicted, “There won’t be any biologists or botanists to come in and pull the wool over her eyes.”
Looting the Commons
While free markets tend to democratize society, unfettered capitalism leads invariably to corporate control of government.
America’s most visionary leaders have long warned against allowing corporate power to dominate the political landscape. In 1863, in the depths of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lamented, “I have the Confederacy before me and the bankers behind me, and I fear the bankers most.” Franklin Roosevelt echoed that sentiment when he warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any controlling power.”
Today, more than ever, it is critical for American citizens to understand the difference between the free-market capitalism that made our country great and the corporate cronyism that is now corrupting our political process, strangling democracy and devouring our national treasures.
By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. From Rolling Stone, December 11, 2003.
© Rolling Stone LLC 2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Much of the information contained in this article was provided by experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
- For the first time since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1970, America’s water-pollution levels are rising, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Our estuaries are dramatically more polluted than they were just four years ago; 218 million of us now live within ten miles of a polluted water body unsafe for drinking, fishing, swimming or boating.
- The Centers for Disease Control says one in twelve American women of childbearing age has unsafe mercury levels in her body, putting more than 320,000 newborns at risk annually.
- Automobile fuel efficiency has dropped to its lowest level in two decades.
- The local fish in twenty-eight states, along seventy-one percent of the coastline in the lower forty-eight states and in eighty-two percent of estuaries are too dangerous to eat regularly. The Great Lakes and their connecting streams are under fish-consumption advisories.
- The Lake Erie dead zone is increasing for the first time in thirty years. Erie was declared entirely dead in the 1960s but was resurrected by the Clean Water Act. Recent rollbacks are again killing the lake.
- The pace of Superfund cleanups has declined by more than fifty percent and the program is bankrupt; taxpayers, not polluters, will pay for cleanups. Twenty-five percent of Americans live within four miles of a Superfund site.
- The U.S. Forest Service plans to resume commercial logging in Sequoia National Monument in California and to introduce logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest – America’s sole remaining great old-growth forest. New federal forestry rules curtail citizens’ rights and eliminate environmental reviews for many logging projects.
- The oceans are emptying of fish, with most large oceanic populations having collapsed to ten percent of 1950 levels.
- Glaciers in most regions are shrinking; sea levels are rising. Small ice shelves in the Arctic and Antarctic are shattering, and many coral reefs are turning a ghostly white. By and large, these are symptoms of unprecedented warmth. Experts blame pollution for most of the global warming.