Monday, November 29, 2004

Can a Crisis in Superfund Bring Hope To Democrats?

Can a crisis in Superfund contain the seeds of the resurrection of progressive forces in this country? It's up to us.

I'm managing to find a bit of time to read again and right now I'm reading a fascinating and infuriating book, Deceit and Denial, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. The first half of the book covers the shameful behavior of the American lead industry and its efforts throughout most of the 20th century to cover up the havoc it was wreaking on American children and workers with promotion of lead paint and leaded gasoline as safe and essential for the survival of American economy and the American way of life.

Then, like a bad case of deja vu, I read this in last Thursday's Washington Post:
As a toddler, Elam Jacob used to cling to one of the front windows in his house to watch his father, Cory, leave for work. At the end of the day, Elam would climb back onto the sill to await his father's return, giggling as Dad came up the steps.

Unbeknown to his parents, Elam was inhaling lead-laced dust blowing in from outside, the legacy of a defunct smelter dating to 1871 and a handful of smaller industrial operations in town. After the sunny, blond 13-month-old, who had learned eight words, lost the ability to talk in 2001 and became hyperactive, his mother, Heidi, found a description of lead poisoning on the Internet and realized it matched Elam's symptoms. A blood test revealed he had lead levels of four times the safety threshold identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"He's permanently damaged. There's no reversal," said Heidi Jacob, 30, a mother of four who began crying as she recalled the discovery. "It's totally preventable. You know where it comes from, and nobody told us about it."

Elam -- who at age 4 speaks mainly gibberish and jumps around incessantly -- is one of more than 2,600 children with high lead levels in East Omaha, a largely poor inner-city neighborhood that ranks as one of the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the nation. The area was recently added to the Superfund federal waste-cleanup program and the bankrupt trust fund that was supposed to pay for it.

The cleanup effort here, however, is receiving only a fraction of the funding it needs, and the project could easily take a dozen years.
Superfund was created to be a super fund that would clean these sites up before lives and communities faced further damage –- either using money from employers who created the mess in the first place, or using public funds –- based on corporate taxes -- where those employers no longer exist.

Unfortunately, according to the Post, “the nearly 25-year-old program aimed at protecting Americans from industrial contamination is in crisis.”

What happened?

Republicans have declined to renew two corporate taxes that fed billions into the Superfund trust fund since 1980, and the program's spending power is shrinking. The Government Accountability Office calculated that the budget declined by 34 percent over the past decade, considering inflation.

The taxes -- one on oil and chemical companies, the other a general environmental tax on corporations -- expired in 1995. Bill Clinton pushed to reinstate them during his presidency, but Congress refused. Now that Republicans control both the legislative and executive branches, all sides say there is little chance the two levies -- which could bring in $16 billion over the next decade -- will be revived.

True, the Bush administration has made a token effort to increase funding for Superfund. But the effort was half-hearted. And that's apparently about half a heart more than Congressional Republicans have, because they responded to the lack of lobbying by the White House by cutting Superfund funding for next year. It just couldn't be helped:
"There is little question in my mind if Congress chooses to allocate more dollars this year as a priority, it can be spent doing important cleanups," said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, who visited the Omaha lead site in October. "The problem is, our pocketbook does not stretch across all the places our heart responds to."
That’s because their heart responds not to the Elam Jacobs of this country, but to their corporate supporters who prefer tax cuts for themselves over healthier neighborhoods for those whose lives they’ve destroyed.

This whole mess is an excellent lesson in the connection between electoral politics and human health. Hiding behind the fa├žade of fear of terrorism and so-called “moral values,” the polluters and other corporate allies of the Bush administration have just won an election that has, in effect, sentenced Elam Jacob and thousands more like him to lives of disease and retardation. As many as 9,400 children under 7 remain exposed to the same conditions that have destroyed Elam Jacob's life.

These are apparently the “moral values” that triumphed on November 2, although it’s painfully clear that almost none of those who enthusiastically voted for George Bush and his Republican colleagues were aware of the catastrophic effect that their votes would have on thousands of American children and workers.

The question for those of us who are aware of these crimes is how to wake millions of Americans to the sad fact that the wrong vote can destroy the health and lives of people in this country.

Echoing my post last week, the NY Times editorial page asked the other day how the EPA administrator Mike Leavitt can truly believe that the administration has a mandate for Bush's environmental policies:
For one thing, environmental issues - as well as related energy issues - rarely broke the surface of the campaign. That was a shame, since these are important matters and the candidates' views differed just as sharply as they did on other issues. But the electorate can hardly be said to have delivered a mandate on something they weren't even asked to think about.
The Times goes on to describe numerous local environmental victories on November 2:
  • A Colorado ballot initiative requiring electric utilities to generate 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015

  • A Montana initiative that defied job blackmail attempts and upheld a prohibition on mining practices that pollute rivers and streams with toxic wastes, despite heavy industry lobbying

  • Approval of $2.53 billion worth of new bond issues in red and blue states to preserve open space despite Congressional cuts in financing for land acquisition.
What lessons can we draw here?

First, where the defense of the environment and peoples' health become election issues, those who favor a cleaner, safer environment can win, even in conservative "red" states.

Second, environmental issues can become election issues -- winning election issues --where the issues are local, visible and directly relevant to peoples' daily concerns. (For a fascinating discussion of how environmental issues can work for Democrats, even in a conservative state like Montana, check out David Sirota's article in the Washington Monthly about how winning Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer united hunters and environmentalists in opposition to Republican efforts to sell off public access to outdoor recreation areas.)

Third, national issues emerge from thousands of similar local issues.

Fourth, where these local issues can be tied together into a cohesive theme that resonates with peoples' gut feelings and, yes, their values; and when those issues, themes and values can be articulated convincingly by a candidate, the candidate and progressive issues can win.

This may be a conservative country full of people that value individualism and even limited government, but this country also has a progressive tradition that comes alive when people realize that they are losing control of their economic well-being and the health and safety of their families to forces beyond their control.

The recent Republican victory was based in fear: fear of terrorism and fear of the “other” (gays). There are plenty of real hazards in this country to be afraid of if you live near a toxic waste dump, or work in a hazardous workplace, or breathe polluted air. By identifying those issues, by showing people the source of those problems and why they're not being addressed by their elected representatives, by making Elam Jacob a poster child of Republican values, and finally by articulating a vision of how our government has a responsibility to work for the people of this country, we may be able to win back many the hearts and minds that were lost to us this year.

It's worth a try.