Obama’s Environmental Emergency

Change Agent Flunks First Test of Leadership

Corporatists Appointed to Key Regulatory Posts

By Evaggelos Vallianatos

Despite his electoral promises, President Barack Obama has yet to face the disastrous policies of George W. Bush. Americans were desperate for an alternative to wars and financial meltdown. Obama said he would reverse America’s decline: end the wars, teach Wall Street a lesson and restore the crumbling middle class.

Not only did Bush start the disastrous and ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that made America a pariah country in the world, but also his advisors stoked the greed of Wall Street with the result vast wealth lined the pockets of the very rich and poverty encircled millions. One percent of very rich Americans owns as much as the 95% of the population. Such gross inequities annihilate the mythic middle class and make mockery of democracy.

In addition, and no less important, for 8 years Bush dismantled whatever environmental protection Americans enjoyed. The president’s men and women managed this corporate counterrevolution within the federal government, rewriting, weakening and deleting regulations controlling pollution.

A huge number of toxic chemicals, including some 200 cancer-causing farm sprays, have been assaulting Americans, contaminating the country’s water, air, and food.

With Bush in the White House, hurting people and the environment became routine. The US Environmental Protection Agency even refused to protect children from the carcinogens and nerve poisons of farmers. EPA also shut down its labs, libraries, and destroyed thousands of key documents. Without these labs, libraries, and documents EPA is laboring in the dark.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney planned the country’s energy policy in secret in order to satisfy the profits of the oil, car, nuclear, coal, and manufacturing companies. A petroleum man worked out of the White House editing the documents of government scientists reporting that global warming was a result of human activities, particularly industrialized animal farms and the burning of oil, coal and natural gas.

President Bush, who rejected the Kyoto Protocol for slowing down the warming of the earth, sided with the petroleum companies spreading doubt and misinformation about climate change.

So it was with this Bush legacy of almost criminal neglect about the protection of human health and the environment that Obama has had to wrestle with.

Unfortunately, Obama has flunked this first test of leadership. His appointees at the critical federal departments protecting human health and the natural world, Agriculture, Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration, came with corporate biases.

First, Lisa Jackson, administrator of EPA: She used to be the Commissioner of Environmental Protection in New Jersey. According to Professional Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington, D.C., non-profit organization defending federal employees who blow the whistle on corruption, she punished scientists for speaking out. On the other hand, the Sierra Club likes Jackson. Environmentalists of Texas also like her regional administrator, Al Armendariz. So, perhaps, it is too early to judge her, though preparing regulations for coal ash while the agency promotes coal-mining waste for sale mirror confusion and corporate influence. The partnership between EPA and the coal industry legitimizes the peddling of hazardous coal ash for “consumer” uses that bring the industry more than $ 11 billion each year.

The Battlefield Golf Club of Chesapeake, Virginia, learned to its detriment that using 1.5 million tons of coal fly ash in its land made that land toxic, leaching poisons into the groundwater and residential wells.

Last December, the Kingston coal ash pond of the Tennessee Valley Authority spilled a billion gallons of toxic sludge that covered 300 acres of land. There are some 1,300 such ponds all over the country. All of them remain unregulated.

Jackson probably knows that the coal waste, something like 131 million tons in 2007, is full of toxic chemicals and metals: lead, arsenic, barium and boron in particular. The right thing to do would be to classify coal waste as hazardous waste.

Second, Michael Taylor, a Monsanto vice president and fat-cat lobbyist, is advising the Commissioner of FDA.

Third, Joseph “Coal Ash Joe” Pizarchik, a mining bureaucrat from Pennsylvania, has the blessings of Obama and Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, to direct the Office of Surface Mining of the Department of the Interior. But this man has had a bad reputation for supporting destructive mining in Pennsylvania. Under the Bush administration the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining used to approve the repulsive and catastrophic mining practices in West Virginia and Kentucky where entire mountains are blown up to extract coal. Fortunately, EPA promised to prohibit any more removals of mountaintops. Also, Ken Salazar cancelled the Bush oil leases in the public land of Utah. So, like in the case of EPA, the record in the Interior is one of danger and promise.

Fourth, the experts Obama appointed to represent America in the December 2009 negotiations about climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, act like they are the first cousins of the petroleum lobbyists that worked for Bush.

Brent Blackwelder, president of the Friends of the Earth, which, like the Sierra Club, is a large environmental organization in the US, called the Obama officials “weak-kneed” and “not leading.”

There’s still time for Obama to return to his public promise. He needs to discard the Bush legacy, particularly in matters affecting public health and the natural world.

First, use the power of the federal government, including anti-trust laws, to regulate or abolish industrialized animal farms. Demand that they clean up their massive wastes before spaying them over land or directing the poisoned liquid towards rivers. Or, better yet, break up animal factories into thousands of small family farms. Give the annual agricultural subsidies of about $20 billion to family farms of 320 or less acres in size. Order all federal departments, including the Pentagon, to buy organic food. This measure alone would dramatically increase the number of organic farms and food production for the benefit of all Americans.

The other beneficial effect of organic farming is in the carbon emissions organic soil absorbs. According to a 2009 Rodale Institute study, if all of the 3.5 billion farm acres in the world produced food in an organic way, organic land would sequester 40 percent of all carbon emissions.

Second, EPA ought to ban all cancer-causing and nerve-damaging pesticides. EPA talent could then join the great scientific talent of the Department of Agriculture in helping farmers to end their dependence on toxic sprays and genetic engineering.

Good farming practices and ecological knowledge, already helping organic farming, can also help the remaining farmers to return to a healthy and prosperous agriculture.

Third, take global warming for the calamity it is becoming. Select America’s best climate scientists with instructions to craft a strategy to move this country into the solar age, cutting its carbon dioxide emissions fast and in substantial amounts. Join the international community this December in Copenhagen to bring the world together to slow down and reverse global warming.

Finally, Obama and Americans must understand that “environmental protection” is not a luxury at all. It is a matter of life and death.

According to EPA data, DDT-like poisons in the 1970s contaminated mothers’ milk.

In the 1980s, more than half of the population had pentachlorophenol, a cancer-causing toxin, in their blood. Pentachlorophenol was also contaminated by dioxin, the most acutely toxic chemical in the industrialized world. Hispanics had a tremendous variety of toxins in their bodies. Blacks and poor whites had also greater amounts of toxins in their bodies than middle class whites.

Pollution follows class.

Protecting the natural world is protecting us.

We need a new EPA independent of industry influence and political interference. Perhaps, a Supreme Court-like EPA might just be the right model for environmental protection in the United States.

EPA will be the final test whether Obama is weak-kneed and not leading. Now that he won the 2009 Peace Prize, Obama might wish to win the environmental and public health prize.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, former analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency, is the author of This Land is Their Land and The Passion of the Greeks.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2009


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