THE US Congress has declared a veritable war on the environment. This summer, it debated a series of rollbacks of federal
laws protecting the environment. However, after losing crucial
congressional battles earlier this year, environmentalists are
now launching their own concerted counterattack.
In the most killing blow to the environmental movement
yet, the House of Representatives voted to cut the
Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget by one-third
- to about us $4.9 billion - in late July; this is us $2.5
less than what President Clinton's administration had sought.
EPA enforcement and rulemaking activities were also sought to
be curbed through a host of riders.
The blow came when environmentalists were still reeling
from an earlier attack: the controversial Rescissions Bill . This
bill, containing the infamous "logging without laws" amendment had been made into a law (Down to Earth, Vol 4, No 8).
Clinton had vetoed the original bill, saying it
would "essentially throw out all of our environmental
laws and the protections that we have." But on July 27,
he caved in and signed a slightly modified version.
Clinton's capitulation led to angry demonstrations in
front of,the White House, led by Gene Katoinski,
executive director of the us Public Interest Research
The not-so-subtle game of offensives and counteroffensives began in spring with talk of "regulatory
reform". Conservatives in the House wanted to radically modify the federal rulemaking process, arguing
that federal environmental laws are too burdensome
and costly for industry, property owners and state and
local govertirrients: people lost valuable land only
because an endangered species may be found there,
cancer rates in the us were decreasing making regula
tions meaningless, occupational safety laws resulted in
thousands of dollars being spent on the most minor
hazards... the list of 'silly regulations' was almost endless.
Instead, Republican lawmakers wanted to streamline public health, safety and environmental programmes by subjecting them to risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis.
Environmental groups were caught off-guard. Says Katoinski,
"The extent of the attack on the environment was well disguised and difficult to explain to most people on the streets."
Conservationists contend that reforming the regulations
would turn back the clock on more than two decades of environment protection (see box).
The greens were quick to organise a spirited offensive, the
centerpiece of which has been the 'Environmental Bill of
Rights' petition, launched by Sierra Club, an environmental
organisation, and the PIRG. "Every American," the petition
declares, "has the right to a safe and healthy environment. We
oppose any measures that would roll back the environmen'
progress of the last 25 years... and will hold public officials w
represent us accountable for their stewardship of the planet."
According to Bruce Hamilton, conservation director
Sierra Club, it was more than a signature-gathering exercise; it
was about educating and mobilising the press, the public and
politicians. The response to the petition has been overwhelming. More than a million Americans have so far signed it. The
message from the people to the Congress seems to be clear
protect the environment or pay the price.
But it hasn't been easy. Observes David LaRoche, chief
staff, International Joint Commission, us and Canada,
has also worked with NGOS for years, "Over the years, man
the conservation organisations in the us have moved
from their grassroot support bases into more of lobbying. But
with the majority party in the Congress changing, they suddenly found they have no clout there."
But necessity is the mother of invention. And of strange
A 21-chainsaw salute to Clinton: ecologists protest in Washington
bedfellows. In a quick change of strategy, the war on the
ronment has seen many environmental organisations scrambling for new allies. Greenpeace, for instance, has enlisted the
support of fishing groups in a campaign to salvage the nation's
stocks. Others are cultivating contacts with religious organisations.
The back-to-the people strategy seems to be yielding
results. After witnessing downward trends through the 198os
and the early 1990s, memberships and contributions for envi
ronmental organisations have once again started rising. Says
Hamilton, "If we can mobilise public outrage against the antienvironment votes (of representatives in the Congress), we
can either turn around their future votes or turn them out of
office in the next election cycle.
Meanwhile, the White House seems to be doing a flip-flop
on environmental issues.
"Clinton is not even trying to
environment president," says a
disgusted Carl Pope of Sierra
Club. "He seems to have made a
political calculation that the
public is not concerned about
these issues, and that's a
mistake." Most opinion polls
bear him out; in a recent survey
conducted by the Mellman Group
pollsters, for instance, 62
per cent of the respondents felt
that Congress should do more
for the environment. Only 29 per
cent thought it should repeal
But the lobbying continues,
albeit in a different form. In
November last year, alarmed
conservation groups pooled their
resources with traditional
funders of the environmental
movement to form the
Environmental Information Centre
(Etc) to combat environmental
misinformation, especially the
anti - environment tirades in
This summer, even as the House
of Representatives debated the "risk assessment" bill,
EIC'S Washington office functioned as the war room for a
massive public education campaign. As representatives gave
the House examples of regulatory injustices inflicted on
American citizens, the Fic
the truth in these cases by
going back to the sources.
The results were brought out in
a report, Polluting the
Truth. Virtually every one of
the stories was found to be
fabyicated or a distortion of facts.
In an attack on the Clean Water
Act, for instance,
representative Ed Bryant
an anecdote about a farmer who
lost 202 ha of prime land
when a beaver built a dam.
"Why?" queried Bryant in the
House, "Because federal
government says it can't remove
beaver dam as it had created a
wetland." Yet, removing a
beaver dam does not require a
Clean Water Act permit. Asks
the report, "How big was this
beaver that built a dam that
flooded 202 ha?"
The Senate is currently
considering the bill passed by
House for a drastically-reduced
EPA budget. Although the
Subcommittee voted in September
restore some of the cuts, the
victory for environmentalists has
been only partial. Besides, with
more anti-environment laws
on the anvil (see box),
environmentalists cannot afford