Capitol Games

Article excerpt

How Congress is using sneaky tactics to weaken the nation's environmental protections

During the late 1980s, when a series of unexplained illnesses felled livestock on Sue Pope's ranch in Midlothian, Texas, no one made a connection to the cement kiln down the road. Residents had heard that a nearby kiln was burning waste oil as fuel in the production of cement, but, Pope says, nobody thought much of it then. "For the longest time, we just thought that Lady Luck had stopped smiling on us," she says.

Cattle collapsed with mysterious neurological ailments and had to be destroyed. Calves were born with grotesque deformities, and several of Pope's prized Arabian horses could no longer produce foals. Then, Pope and many of her neighbors began to develop health problems of their own, including cancer, endometriosis, respiratory disease and heart trouble. "In 1991, someone handed me a pamphlet saying that these kilns were burning toxic waste," Pope says. "That's when everything clicked."

The kiln in this small town about 30 miles south of Dallas began supplementing its fuel with toxic waste in 1987. Last year alone it burned 130,000 tons of hazardous waste, mostly paint thinners, solvents and oil-refinery residues. Although Texas environmental officials so far have not connected kiln emissions directly to local health problems, cement kilns that burn toxic waste can release dioxins, heavy metals and other pollutants linked with cancer and other health problems. Consequently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun a study in Midlothian of the birth defects among local farm animals, and the Texas Health Department is investigating an unusual number of Down's syndrome children born to families living within 10 miles of the kiln.

Cement kilns for years have been burning thousands of tons of toxic waste annually in the United States. Because they burn toxics as fuel rather than as waste, the kilns have been regulated by interim federal rules that are not as strict as those for commercial hazardous-waste incinerators. However, a task force appointed by the chairman of the Texas Air Control Board recently concluded that regulations on the kilns should be tightened to bring them in line with regulations for toxic-waste incinerators, which burn many of the same materials.

The EPA agreed, and in 1995 was ready to set such standards. The proposed rules, the culmination of a decade-long examination, would require kilns to use the best technology available to reduce emissions. But just as those standards were about to become final, along came the 104th Congress, with a new majority elected in 1994.

The 104th Congress set out to undercut a broad range of environmental regulations. One rider on the EPA funding bill aimed to soften the new cement-kiln rules and could have exempted some kilns from implementing the new technology-based air-emission controls.

That rider did not sit well with residents living near Midlothian's cement kiln. "If there had been hearings, if there had been any input from the public, it would be different," says Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk, a Midlothian citizens group. "But there was no opportunity for the public to participate. It's a backdoor way of getting these kilns off the hook."

The kiln rider illustrates how the current Congress is bending 30 years of environmental laws to serve the needs of industry rather than the needs of the public at large. When the 104th Congress was called to order in January 1995, the new congressional majority set to work implementing House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Georgia) Contract With America. One of the charges abundantly set forth in that document was the deregulating of America - cutting back on the rules and regulations that safeguard the health and safety of Americans at home, outdoors and in the workplace. The main argument advanced for these cutbacks: The regulations were too expensive for industry. …