Environmental Regulations Who Needs Them

While many corporations press ahead to weaken environmental protection, individual citizens who have benefited from regulation clearly support existing laws

  • Vicki Monks
  • Feb 01, 1996
During the early 1980s, Diane Wilson, a fourth generation Texas shrimper, had worried that the prime fishing grounds of Lavaca Bay, on the Gulf Coast, might be seriously contaminated. For years she had watched onshore industries pumping wastes into the ocean where she and other shrimpers had struggled to make a living on smaller and smaller catches. She also had noticed disturbing numbers of dead dolphins and birds at sea and washed up on beaches.

Then, in 1986, when the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act became law as part of the Superfund package, requiring industries to disclose their discharges of more than 300 different toxic chemicals, one of the plants on Lavaca Bay proved to be among the worst polluters in the nation the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) plant in Point Comfort. Offshore from Alcoa, the Environmental Protection Agency found toxic levels of methyl mercury and proposed the area as a Superfund site. The Texas Health Department warned pregnant women that eating one meal of fish caught in the area could cause fetal damage.

While Lavaca Bay is far from clean today, Wilson now sees hope for an end to the pollution. In summer 1995, Alcoa signed a "good neighbor" agreement pledging to work toward zero discharge of waste water pollutants. In exchange, Wilson agreed not to file a citizen's Clean Water Act lawsuit against the company. Late last year, Formosa Plastics of Point Comfort, a major producer of polyvinyl chloride, signed a similar agreement.

This corporate change of heart occurred after Wilson had staged three hunger strikes and after other fishermen had joined her in multiple protests and legal challenges. But had it not been for the Clean Water Act and the Right To Know law, Wilson believes, the agreement never would have happened. "When we got Community Right to Know, it was like a light in the darkness," she says. "If it hadn't been for that law, we never would have known how much pollution was out there."

The laws the Texas shrimpers relied on to leverage pollution control agreements along with many other environmental laws and regulations are now targeted for radical change. In response to complaints from business that regulation is a burden, Congress since the 1994 elections has moved to weaken or revoke many environmental protections. Anecdotes of heavy handed regulation seemingly have carried great weight with Congress, yet they tell only a small part of the story. "Environmental regulations have empowered citizens to protect their own surroundings and have helped create a cleaner environment for millions of Americans," says Mary Marra, director of NWF's national office. The rules have helped people to breathe easier, live longer and raise healthier children, Marra says, and they have also made good business sense in many parts of the country. "Regulations have changed economic incentives so that responsible companies are rewarded. In many cases, that's meant those businesses also become more competitive and more profitable," she says. The laws have also protected public resources and enhanced our lives through conservation of the natural world. But all of these benefits may be undone or curtailed in the drive to ease regulations.

While many corporations press ahead to weaken environmental protection, individual citizens who have benefited from regulation clearly support existing laws. For instance, Robin Brandt of Rothschild, Wisconsin, recalls how her daughter, Jessica Buckmaster, suffered from severe asthma attacks through most of her childhood in the 1980s. The attacks were brought on primarily by exposure to sulfur dioxide released in concentrated bursts from a Weyerhaeuser paper mill located near her school. The pollutant triggered asthma attacks in many of the children at Rothschild Elementary, but Jessica was so sensitive, teachers sometimes called her "the canary."

According Jim Harris, the principal during Buckmaster's elementary school years, a mechanical monitor placed on school grounds by the state Department of Natural Resources often recorded sulfur dioxide levels that exceeded the .4 parts per million known to induce asthma attacks. In fact, readings often surpassed the 5 parts per million the instrument was capable of measuring. On those days kids had to stay indoors, and teachers kept classroom windows shut even in hot weather.

Now 16, Jessica's health has improved greatly since Weyerhaeuser installed pollution control equipment in 1991. Today, she can play volleyball and take walks without getting sick. But she has not forgotten the times when her lips and fingernails turned blue, and she was taken away from school by ambulance. "I was just angry at Weyerhaeuser," she recalls. "I was so mad at them when I was little." Weyerhaeuser's short term but intense bursts of sulfur dioxide did not violate regulations, because the total pollution emitted over a 24 hour period fell within federally established limits. Even so, after parents protested, the EPA threatened to invoke emergency powers under the Clean Air Act. As a result, the company voluntarily spent $9 million on stack scrubbers to reduce emissions by 90 percent. Harris, who is now principal at a neighboring elementary school, says the quality of life for the whole village is better. "We saw an improvement at the school, vastly reducing the number of kids having medical emergencies," Harris says.

Because of Jessica's case and others like it, EPA has proposed new regulations to limit intense, short term bursts of air pollutants. According to the American Lung Association, more than 13 million Americans including 4.8 million children suffer from asthma, and for them, exposure to air pollutants can be dangerous. But the proposed rules may never be implemented. Under some of the risk assessment and cost benefit scenarios that Congress is considering, the well being of the relatively small number of people who are extremely sensitive to pollution may not measure up against the costs to business.

Another example of the power that regulations offer to private citizens can be found among Kentucky residents who live along Yellow Creek, near Middlesboro. In the 1960s, a tannery began piping bubbling, maroon and black wastes laden with toxic chemicals into the Middlesboro sewage treatment plant, which then discharged partially treated toxic effluent directly into the creek. "Every house here had health problems...leukemia, birth defects, miscarriages," says Sheila Wilson, whose farm animals all died after drinking water from the creek in the 1970s. Stopping the toxic discharge took more than 10 years and a citizen's lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, but now the creek is once again running clear, and smallmouth bass, beavers and muskrats have returned. Although federal water protection laws have been in place since the 1970s, they were not vigorously enforced in Kentucky until citizens demanded relief.

Says attorney Hank Graddy, who represented Yellow Creek residents, "The Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act were late in coming to Kentucky, but the citizens of this state are benefiting from those laws now, even if it is belated. To weaken the laws would be an invitation for these tragedies to be repeated."

Yet that weakening is precisely what a powerful cadre of federal legislators seeks at the behest of industry. Last spring, the House approved an overhaul of the Clean Water Act that would loosen sewage treatment requirements, weaken wetlands protections and allow industries to discharge more pollutants into water. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R Texas) introduced legislation to repeal all of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R Kansas) sponsored a regulatory reform bill requiring proof that benefits outweigh costs before any environmental regulations could be implemented. That bill would also substantially weaken Community Right to Know rules. Both houses of Congress approved appropriations bills that included cuts in funding for drinking water protection, curbs on EPA enforcement powers and special provisions exempting some industries such as cement kilns and oil and gas producers from key regulations.

Linda King of the Environmental Health Network based in Chesapeake, Virginia, which provides advice to local groups on ways to combat pollution, fears the activity in Congress may undo years of work in developing cooperative agreements between industries and nearby communities. "Companies are beginning to back out of agreements that have taken more than 10 years to negotiate," King says. "Looking at what Congress has proposed, they see they may have an out." That's bad news for the Baltimore neighborhood associations in the heavily industrialized area around Curtis Bay. Activists there cite federal regulations as strong allies in winning pledges of reductions in air and water emissions from many local industrial plants. "The regulations are in place, and they don't want to be butting heads with us all the time, so now we sit down and talk," says neighborhood resident Doris McGuigan.

McGuigan got involved in 1971, after her mother died of aplastic anemia a probable result, said doctors, of years of exposure to contaminated air in her neighborhood. "At the time, I didn't know what to think about the environment," McGuigan recalls. "The only thing I knew was I didn't want anybody to suffer like she did." The pollution was so bad by the early 1980s that the Maryland Department of Transportation installed warning signs on Key Bridge to alert motorists to the dense chemical fog that sometimes flowed from the complex of industries along the waterfront. Lawsuits filed after a 10 car pileup on the bridge blamed the accident on a cloud of titanium tetrachloride released from the SCM Glidden paint factory. But reported toxic emissions began dropping dramatically after the Community Right to Know Act made total amounts of toxic releases public. Air and water pollution in the area is now down by 74 percent since 1988.

In August, President Clinton visited the neighborhood to announce an executive order that will require businesses with federal contracts to continue to report toxic emissions publicly even if Congress disables the Community Right to Know Act. Although that law involves little cost or bureaucracy, the President said, it has been one of the most successful tools for environmental progress. Since it has been on the books, reported toxic air emissions have declined 43 percent nationwide. "It's also helped to spur innovation that helps businesses work smarter and cleaner and become more profitable, not less profitable," Clinton said. Several recent studies suggest that environmental regulations do not harm the economy and may in fact stimulate economic development. In the Los Angeles area, the "most aggressive air pollution regulations in history" have not interfered with economic performance, according to the Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies at California State University. A detailed analysis shows that during the past 30 years, job, wage and manufacturing growth in the Los Angeles basin have outpaced growth in the rest of the nation. Even the most heavily regulated industries in Los Angeles outperformed their counterparts in regions with looser air quality rules. The Institute for Southern Studies found similar results in a recent survey: States with the best environmental records had the most productive economies.

Conversely, a degraded environment may do considerable harm to businesses. While pollutants in the heavily industrialized Houston Ship Channel have declined steadily during the past 20 years, spills still occur and contaminants in the water still occasionally catch fire. During crises that shut down the channel, businesses that depend on shipping through the channel lose an estimated $1 million a day. Similarly, the economy of Belmar, New Jersey, was very nearly ruined when trash and medical waste washed up on East Coast beaches in 1987. "We experienced a huge loss of tourism dollars as a result of the pollution," says Mayor Kenny Pringle. Through a variety of federal regulations, including the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Shore Protection Act of 1988, controls were tightened on runoff, sewage discharges, burning at sea and garbage and sludge dumping. Today, Pringle says, the quality and clarity of the water rivals any in the country. Tourists are returning, and Belmar's economy is rebounding. Ollie Klein, Jr., who runs a family restaurant and fish market in Belmar, is worried that Congress will weaken the laws that protect his town. "It won't be a good thing for people in the fishing industry or the tourist business," Klein says. "It won't be good for anyone who depends on the shore. I'd much rather see them make it harder to pollute."

The city of Belmar itself had to invest in sewage and runoff controls because of federal regulations, but Pringle believes the benefits to the economy have far outweighed the investment. The mayor is convinced the beaches here will not stay clean without federal rules. "We can't control New York, where the bulk of floatable pollution came from," he says. "It would be such a crime to turn back. We are just now starting to enjoy the fruits of these regulations."

Some economic benefits can be calculated and weighed against the costs of regulations, but other equally important advantages cannot be so easily measured. For instance, putting a dollar value on the human suffering that results from environmental degradation such as Jessica Buckmaster's inability to play outside on a beautiful day is virtually impossible. Such quality of life issues came up recently in New Mexico, where the Laguna Pueblo tribe relied on the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal regulations to negotiate with the Anaconda Mining Company and its parent, Atlantic Richfield, over restoration of what had been the largest open pit uranium mine in the world. The impetus for cleanup was not so much a fear of long term health consequences as an effort to heal psychological wounds. "Culturally, the Earth is our mother, so psychologically we were hurting because the earth had been torn open," says reclamation project manager Marvin Sarracino, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. "So we've tried to mend it."

With cleanup on the Laguna Pueblo reservation nearly complete, the tribal corporation formed to do the job has signed contracts for restoration projects on other reservations and on federal land and continues to employ tribal members.

Even harder to quantify are the benefits of environmental protection that will not be discovered until sometime in the future. No one can calculate the precise benefits of protecting biological diversity, for example, because no one knows which species will prove to be critical in protecting our health or ensuring our survival in the future. "One third of all prescription drugs are derived from plants, and yet we've only investigated 5 percent of all plant species for their medicinal value," says Dr. Kevin Browngoehl, a Pennsylvania pediatrician. "We need to ensure that the rest of them will be around when we are ready to look at them. In balancing costs and benefits, Congress should take into account the thousands of people who are diagnosed every year with illnesses that currently are not treatable. We don't know which plants may provide medicines to treat these diseases." The environmental problems we still face in the United States are a potent sign of the continuing importance of regulations. A Harvard study estimated that as many as 60,000 people die yearly from particulate air pollution. Twenty eight million Americans with chronic respiratory problems are regularly exposed to harmful levels of smog that worsen their illnesses. Millions more drink water laced with contaminants, including fecal coliform, pesticides, radioactivity, and disease-causing microorganisms. "Far from needing to reduce environmental regulation, we need to sharpen it so that it offers even better protection for our citizens," says Mary Marra of NWF. "Our future and our safety, our health and our children, depend on strong environmental protection."

Vicki Monks is director of the Investigative Reporting Project, a Tides Center project based in Maryland.

How You Can Get Involved

Want to get involved in the battle to maintain strong environmental laws that protect human health? Become an active member of NWF and receive EnviroAction, NWF's environmental news digest, as well as timely action alerts that let you know how you can help. EnviroAction is free to members.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates