Environmental Regulations: Who Needs Them?

Article excerpt

We all do, according to people whose health and livelihoods have been protected by these rules and laws

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 waters 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.

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 wastewater 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 some politically powerful businesses, which claim 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. …