Environmental Tensions: 'We Are All Losing the War.' (Includes Related Article on William Reilly's Appointment of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary)

Article excerpt

The state of the environment has recently reached a level of visibility not witnessed since the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970. All the attention, which reached its a o amid last summer's tidal wave of beach pollution and a drought and heat wave that scientists warned might mark the onset of the "greenhouse effect," seems to have finally elevated the issue to an unprecedented place on both the national and global policy agendas. President George Bush has proclaimed himself a Teddy Roosevelt-style environmentalist, endorsed European efforts to save the ozone layer and appointed William Reilly, head of the World Wildlife Fund/Conservation Foundation, to run his Environmental Protection Agency.

But at this moment of urgency and opportunity, a tension between the increasingly militant grass roots and the environmental establishment in Washington threatens to divide the movement. With Reilly inside the whale, the mainstream conservation organizations believe they are at last about to see a serious governmental commitment to saving the environment. But many local groups fear, with some cause, that the well-heeled organizations lobbying in Washington are too ready to compromise with both governmental agencies and corporate polluters.

For thousands of men, women and children living hard by toxic waste sites or polluted rivers, the time for deals and the half measures they produce is long past. This is reflected in the growing number of mass demonstrations and even civil disobedience actions by desperate citizens plagued by unsafe air and drinking water. Last November, days after the national elections, hundreds of people marched for ten days along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, an eighty-mile stretch residents have dubbed "cancer alley" because of contamination ftom at least 136 petrochemical and other plants. Their demand: Reduce emissions and toxic waste to levels that will no longer threaten health.

On a weekend the same month, nearly 1,000 people from across California gathered in Los Angeles to protest the planned siting of a hazardous waste incinerator in an impoverished Latino neighborhood. Incinerators also raised hackles in Kansas in November, where 34-year- old Lauri Maddy -outraged by the lack of state concern about dangerous emissions from Wichita's Vulcan plant -handcuffed herself to a chair in Governor Mike Hayden's office. Her siege, accompanied by twenty supporters, lasted for four hours, until the Governor agreed to meet with her. Five days later, Vulcan canceled plans to build a second toxic waste incinerator, citing "the increased availability of E.P.A. approved incineration capacity" and "new cost estimates."

Last July, five South Carolina citizens who had been arrested for blocking hazardous waste trucks from dumping chemicals near their community's water supply were acquitted of civil disobedience charges by a Sumter County jury. Their plea of self-defense marked the first time that such a tactic had been used successfully by environmental activists since Sam Lovejoy was acquitted for sabotaging a 500-foot weather tower in 1974, an action that galvanized the antinuclear movement.

The efforts of small communities against polluters are no longer taking place in relative isolation from one another. Two national Bass-roots groups -the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes and the National Toxics Campaign are expanding rapidly, providing advice and organizing skills. Richard Grossman, a Washington-based author and activist, has begun bringing together antitoxics organizers ftom various regions for a series of regular meetings, each one followed by a demonstration targeting a local polluter. In February, Grossman took his crusade to a black neighborhood in Texarkana, Texas, that includes two contaminated sites on the Environmental Protection Agency's "Superfund" priority cleanup list. The protest concluded with a two-mile march of residents and community organizers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, California and Washington, D. …