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The official version of the political battles over the environment in the late 1990s goes something like this:
As the Republican Visigoths swept into control of the 104th Congress, in January of 1995, trembling greens predicted that not an old-growth tree, not an endangered species would be spared. The Republicans’ threats were terrible to behold. They proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They vowed to establish a commission to shut down several national parks; to relax standards on the production and disposal of toxic waste; to turn over enforcement of clean water and air standards to the states. They uttered fearsome threats against the Endangered Species Act. They boasted of plans to double the amount of logging in the National Forests.
Then, the official myth goes on, the president, Gore and the national greens fought off the Visigoths.
American politics thrives on simple legends of virtue combating vice. As regards the environment, the Republican ultras did not carry all before them. They didn’t need to. Clinton and Gore had already done most of the dirty work themselves. The real story begins back in the early days of the administration, when Clinton and Gore had what might be called an environmental mandate and a Democratic Congress to help them move through major initiatives. But the initiatives never happened. Instead, those early years were marked by a series of retreats, reversals and betrayals that prompted David Brower, the grand old man of American environmentalism, the arch druid himself, to conclude that “Gore and Clinton had done more harm to the environment than Reagan and Bush combined.”
The first environmental promise Al Gore made in the 1992 campaign, he soon broke. It involved the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, built on a floodplain near the Ohio River. The plant, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was scheduled to burn 70,000 tons of hazardous waste a year in a spot only 350 feet from the nearest house. A few hundred yards away is East Elementary School, which sits on a ridge nearly eye-level with the top of the smokestack.
On July 19, 1992, Gore gave one of his first campaign speeches on the environment, across the river from the incinerator site, in Weirton, West Virginia, hammering the Bush Administration for its plans to give the toxic waste burner a federal air permit. “The very idea is just unbelievable to me”, Gore said. “I’ll tell you this, a Clinton-Gore Administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We’ll be on your side for a change.” Clinton made similar pronouncements on his swing through the Buckeye State.
Shortly after the election, Gore assured neighbors of the incinerator that he hadn’t forgotten about them. “Serious questions concerning the safety of the East Liverpool, Ohio, hazardous waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation”, Gore wrote. “The new Clinton/Gore administration will not issue the plant a test burn permit until all questions concerning compliance with the plant have been answered.”
But that never happened. Instead, the EPA quietly granted the WTI facility its test burn permit. The tests failed, twice. In one, the incinerator eradicated only 7 percent of the mercury found in the waste, when it was supposed to burn away 99.9 percent. A few weeks later the EPA granted WTI a commercial permit anyway. They didn’t tell the public about the failed tests until afterward.
Gore claimed his hands were tied by the Bush Administration, which had promised WTI the permit only a few weeks before the Clinton team took office. But by one account, William Reilly, Bush’s EPA director, met with Gore’s top environmental aide Katie McGinty in January 1993 and asked her if he should begin the process of approving the permit. He says McGinty told him to proceed. McGinty said later that she had no recollection of the meeting.
Gore persisted in maintaining that there was nothing he could do about it once the permit was granted. A 1994 report on the matter from the General Accounting Office flatly contradicted him, saying the plant could be shut down on numerous grounds, including repeated violations of its permit.
“This was Clinton and Gore’s first environmental promise, and it was their first promise-breaker”, says Terri Swearington, a registered nurse from Chester, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River from the incinerator. Swearington, who won the Goldman Prize in 1997 for her work organizing opposition to WTI, has hounded Gore ever since, and during the 2000 campaign she was banned by Gore staffers from appearing at events featuring the vice president.
The decision to go soft on WTI may have had something to do with its powerful financial backer. The construction of the incinerator was partially financed by Jackson Stephens, the Arkansas investment king who helped bankroll the Clinton-Gore campaign. According to EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, during the period when the WTI financing package was being put together Stephens Inc. was represented by Webb Hubble, who later came into Clinton’s justice department and was indicted during the Whitewater investigation, and the Rose law firm, to which Hillary Clinton belonged. Over the ensuing seven years, the WTI plant has burned nearly a half-million tons of toxic waste, 5,000 truckloads of toxic material every year, spewing chemicals such as mercury, lead and dioxin out of its stacks and onto the surrounding neighborhoods. The inevitable illnesses have followed.
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Up in the Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest, a similar saga of betrayal unfolded. In the late 1980s and 1990s federal judge William Dwyer, a Reagan appointee, rocked the Bush Administration when he sided with environmentalists in a series of lawsuits involving the northern spotted owl. Dwyer ruled that the fierce pace of Forest Service logging in ancient forests was driving the spotted owl, and more than 180 other species that dwell in the deep forests west of the Cascade Mountains, to extinction. In 1991, Dwyer handed down an injunction halting all new timber sales in spotted owl habitat. He famously called the Bush Administration’s forest plan “a remarkable series of violations of environmental laws”.
Then along came Bill Clinton and Al Gore. At a rally in Portland, Oregon, on the eve of the 1992 election, Gore vowed to “end the standoff” over the fate of the Northwest forests once and for all. In fact, the standoff was serving the owl pretty well. By 1992, timber sales in the Northwest had declined from 20 million board feet a year in 1982 to 2 million board feet. What was to come would drive the owl even closer to extinction.
Within days of taking office, the Clinton-Gore team set its sights on getting Dwyer’s injunction lifted and the big logs rolling back to the sawmills. The scheme was to become a template for the way Clinton and Gore would handle environmental disputes for the remainder of their term: convene a staged “town hall” style meeting, put out a pre-fab plan and induce your liberal friends to swallow their principles and sign off on it. This shadow play was the April 1993 Forest Summit, a display of consensus-mongering that saw some of the nation’s leading environmentalists hunkering down with executives from Weyerhaeuser. The event, orchestrated by Gore and Katie McGinty, is best remembered for the administration’s bid to censor the opening remarks of a local historian, who wanted to put the session in its proper context by describing the social effects from a hundred years of conscienceless logging by an industry that had treated its workers as ruthlessly as it had treated salmon streams.
Shortly after the Portland summit the political arm-twisting began. Gore’s so-called “green relations team”, led by McGinty, was sent to parley with environmentalists in the region. “They told us that during the campaign they’d made commitments to the timber lobby and the Northwest delegation that logging would be restarted before the end of 1993”, Larry Tuttle later recalled. Tuttle, who formerly headed the Oregon Natural Resources Council (a lead plaintiff in the original spotted owl suit), now runs the Portland-based Center for Environment Equity. “McGinty made it clear that if greens wanted to get some of the provisions we wanted in the new forest plan, we had to offer up something in return.” The Clinton emissaries wanted the plaintiffs in the spotted owl case to go to Judge Dwyer and ask him to release for logging some of the sales he had halted. Many of the big national groups, including the Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, were ready to throw in the towel that very moment. Local groups still held out.
Then Clinton and Gore summoned Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior and former president of the League of Conservation Voters. Babbitt came carrying a big stick. The former Arizona governor knew exactly how to scare the hell out of his former colleagues–by threatening them with “sufficiency language”, a legal device that would allow federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and the BLM, to violate laws like the Endangered Species Act with impunity. Unless they were willing to go along, Babbitt told the spotted owl plaintiffs, the Clinton Administration would be forced to ask Congress to enact a legislative rider that would overturn the injunctions and insulate the new plan from any future environmental lawsuits. The deal was struck over the dissent of grassroots groups.
Judge Dwyer had no choice. He had to let the injunction go, and he had to approve the new Clinton forest plan. There simply wasn’t any opposition to it. However, the judge did issue a warning: if any one element of the plan was not implemented, its legal standing would crumble and an even more sweeping injunction could be in the offing.
For the greens who’d folded, the pay-off was scarcely worth it. The plan didn’t stop the logging of ancient forests. In fact, more than 35 percent of the remaining spotted owl habitat was put into the free-fire zone called “the matrix”, where logging could go forward. But even the remaining 65 percent of old-growth forest was not safe. Although the plan sequestered these lands in a category called Old Growth Reserves, such zones were not, in fact, off limits to logging. The plan’s fine print allowed these lands to be, in Babbitt’s unforgettable phrase, “cut for their own good.” Ecological logging–considered a joke during the Bush era–came into its own with a vengeance during Clinton-Gore time.
Next came the salvage logging rider attached to an annual spending bill and signed by Clinton in 1995. Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, issued the dire judgement that “the salvage rider was arguably the worst single piece of public lands legislation ever signed into law.” The bill consigned millions of acres of National Forest lands across the country to the chainsaw, and contained language exempting the sales from all environmental laws and from any judicial review. The consequences were especially dire in the Pacific Northwest. Gore later called this rider the administration’s biggest mistake on the environment. But it was just one of many.
By 1998, the evidence was irrefutable. The Clinton-Gore plan was driving the owl to extinction much faster than the old cutting plans of the Bush era that Dwyer had forbidden. In an April 1999 report, the Forest Service’s own biologists found that across its range the spotted owl was declining at more than 8 percent per year since the Clinton plan had been put into effect. In California, the rate was even higher, more than 10 percent per year. But the most rapid decline was being seen on the Olympic peninsula, where the owls, isolated by geographical features such as the Puget Sound and surrounded by millions of acres of corporate land clearcut by Weyerhaeuser, Simpson, ITT-Rayonier and John Hancock, were plummeting at the alarming rate of 12.3 percent per year. At that rate the Olympic peninsula owl will be extinct in 2010 and maybe sooner. The spotted owl’s population under the Clinton-Gore Administration declined more in five years than the plan’s environmental impact statement predicted it would decline under a worst-case scenario over forty years.
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The fall of 1993 saw Gore broker a bizarre deal to trade missiles for dead whales. On September 23 of that year he entertained Norway’s prime minister, Gro Brundtland, at the White House. Brundtland, a fellow Harvard grad and a longtime friend of the vice president, sought Gore’s backing for Norway’s effort to overturn the International Whaling Commission’s ban on the hunting of minke whales in the northeast Atlantic Ocean. For years this had been Norway’s aim. But they’d had little success with the Bush Administration.
Early in 1993 the Norwegian fleet flouted international law by killing nearly 300 whales, supposedly for “scientific” and “experimental” purposes, although a later investigation disclosed that Norwegian minke whale meat had ended up in the fish markets of Japan. American environmental groups lashed out at Norway and demanded that the US take action to punish the rogue whalers. Under a US law known as the Pelly Amendment, the Commerce Department can impose trade sanctions on nations that violate the whaling ban.
But Norway had so far escaped without even a mild rebuke. In part this was because Norway had softened up Congress and Clinton’s Commerce Department through a $1.5 million influence-peddling campaign that was led by the lobby firm Akin Gump, home of former DNC chairman Robert Strauss and that master of persuasion Vernon Jordan.
At the time of his meeting with Brundtland, Gore had several things on his mind. One was the situation in Bosnia. The Norwegians had one of the largest contingents of troops on the ground there, and Brundtland was under pressure to pull the peacekeepers out, a move that Gore, who was overseeing much of the Bosnian crisis for the administration, was desperate to avoid. Second, Gore was less than enthusiastic about an outright ban on whaling, feeling that it would impede his efforts to secure free trade pacts.
A White House transcript of the meeting, marked confidential by Gore’s national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, records Brundtland denouncing environmental groups as “extremists” and liars. She tells the vice president that she doesn’t want her nation’s whaling fleet monitored “because that would allow Greenpeace to track them and disrupt our activities”. Then Brundtland went on, “We do feel bullied, even by you simply evaluating the use of sanctions. Especially after several nations in the IWC have tried to change the organization from a whale monitoring mission to a forum to ban whaling outright.”
Gore tried to placate the Norwegian prime minister, agreeing that the environmental groups had unfairly beat up on Norway. “As in arms control, there are those who attempt to exploit uncertainty for their own ends”, Gore said. “This strengthens my argument for the need of a scheme that will allow resumption [of whaling] while removing the basis of suspicion that the RMS [i.e., new whaling rules] will be violated.”
In the end, Gore agreed that the Clinton Administration would refrain from imposing sanctions on Norway and would work with Brundtland to weaken whale protection regulations at the IWC. To seal the agreement, Gore and Brundtland forged an arms deal involving the sale of $625 million worth of air-to-air missiles made by Raytheon to the Norwegian military.
* * *
Across the board, setbacks for the greens came at a dizzying pace during the Clinton Administration. A plan to raise grazing fees on Western ranchers was shelved after protests from two Western senators, one of whom, Max Baucus from Montana, later marveled at how quickly the administration caved. The EPA soon succumbed to pressure from the oil industry and automakers on its plans to press for tougher fuel efficiency standards, a move Katie McGinty defended by saying enviros were “tilting at windmills” on the issue. In the winter of 1994 the White House fired Jim Baca, the reform-minded director of the Bureau of Land Management, after his attempts to take on the ranching and mining industries riled Cecil Andrus, the governor of Idaho.
Tax breaks were doled out to oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Agriculture okayed a plan to increase logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest temperate rainforest. The Interior Department, under orders from the White House, put the brakes on a proposal to outlaw the most grotesque form of strip mining, the aptly-named mountaintop-removal method. With Gore doing much of the lobbying, the administration pushed through Congress a bill that repealed the ban on the import of tuna caught with nets that also killed dolphins. The collapse was rapid enough to distress so centrist an environmental leader as the National Wildlife Federation’s Jay Hair, who likened the experience of dealing with the Clinton-Gore Administration to “date rape”.
The White House quashed a task force investigating timber fraud on the National Forest, which had uncovered several hundred million dollars’ worth of illegal timber cutting by big corporations, including Weyerhaeuser. The task force was disbanded, some of its investigators reassigned to, as one put it, “pull up pot plants in clearcuts”.
As ugly as things got, the big green groups never abandoned Gore, swallowing his line that he was “after all, only the vice president”. It is a hallmark of the Gore style that he knows how deftly to exploit public interest groups even as he betrays their constituents. Like the Christian right during the Bush era, the Beltway greens felt there was nowhere else to turn. They had never trusted Clinton, who as governor had turned a blind eye to fouling of the White River by Don Tyson’s chicken abatoirs and shamelessly pandered after corporate cash during the primaries. Gore was the man on whom they had pinned their hopes.
Gore, they remembered, was the man who had held the first hearings on Love Canal and helped usher the Superfund law into being. Here was the man who popularized the term “global warming” and had warned of the dangers of the deterioration of the ozone layer. Here was the man who had led a contingent of Democratic senators to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, where he chastised George Bush’s indifference to the health of the planet. Here was the man who had written Earth in the Balance, which called for the environment to be the “central organizing principle” of the new century and stressed strict environmental discipline for the Third World.
But as Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth pointed out, during all his years in Congress, Gore’s record on environmental issues was far from sterling. In fact, he voted for the environment only 66 percent of the time, a rating that put him on the lower end of Senate Democrats. Moreover, Blackwelder says, Gore functioned rarely as a leader in Congress but more as a solo operator pursuing his own agenda.
That agenda, from the beginning, has been in line with his roots as a New Democrat. Gore has been a tireless promoter of incentive-based, or free-market, environmentalism, often remarking that “the invisible hand has a green thumb.” Since the mid-1980s, Gore has argued that the bracing forces of market capitalism are potent curatives for the ecological entropy now bearing down upon the global environment. He has always been a passionate disciple of the gospel of efficiency, and a man suffused with an inchoate technophilia.
But Gore was also shrewd. He knew the environmental movement from the inside out, knew well that what the big green groups based in DC craved most was access. As vice president, he arranged to meet at least once a month with the Gang of Ten, the CEOs of the nation’s biggest environmental outfits. It became a way for Gore to cool their tempers and deflect their gripes from him to the president, or more often, to Cabinet members such as Robert Rubin, Ron Brown, Mack McLarty or Lloyd Bentsen. Moreover, Gore made sure to seed the administration with more than thirty executives and staff members from the ranks of the environmental movement itself, headlined by Babbitt, the former president of the movement’s main PAC. Others came from the Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
This experience was a new one for environmental lobbyists who had lived through the exile of the Reagan-Bush era. “It was good to have people in the White House call you by your first name”, Brock Evans, once regarded as the most effective green lobbyist in DC, reflected at a gathering of environmental activists in Oregon in 1993. Evans’ gratified cry summed it all up. Official greens got a bit of access, and that was about it.
The main conduit to the ear of power was Katie McGinty, formerly on Gore’s Senate staff. Few people are closer to Gore than McGinty, one of only two staffers permitted to call the Veep “Al”. (The other is Leon Fuerth.) McGinty grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of an Irish-American cop in Frank Rizzo’s police force. She got a degree in chemistry at St. Joseph’s University and soon went to work for ARCO, the oil/chemical giant. A few years later McGinty pursued a law degree from Columbia in the Science, Law and Technology program. Before joining Gore’s Senate staff, she did a stint in DC as a lobbyist for the American Chemical Society, where she fine-tuned the techno-speak that Gore finds irresistible in a staffer. In answering a reporter’s question about her favorite hobbies, McGinty once said, “Hiking and reading books on civic realization.” It was a response only Gore could find exciting. McGinty became Gore’s top environmental aide in 1990, helped him research Earth in the Balance and accompanied him to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
In 1993, McGinty, then only 29, was tapped to head the White House Office of Environmental Policy, a newly created panel that Gore pushed for to give him more of a presence inside the White House. The move didn’t sit well with members of Congress or with some Clinton staffers, who felt Gore was grasping too much power. Ultimately, the office was merged with the Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees compliance with environmental laws by federal agencies. McGinty was named as its chair.
The years from 1993 to 2000 were bleak ones for environmentalists, as Clinton and Gore retreated from one campaign pledge after another. “Katie seemed out of the loop most of the time she was there”, a seasoned environmental lobbyist told the authors at the time. “Or that’s how she made you feel. Katie’s great talent was to seduce you on the phone. She made you feel as if she was your best friend, a secret Earth First!er, who was shocked and pained when the inevitable betrayals came. Katie never delivered bad news herself, but she was always there to console us. She was very, very adroit at soothing irate enviros, calming them down so that they wouldn’t attack the administration.”
At the height of the budget negotiations in 1998, McGinty shocked many in DC when she abruptly announced that she was resigning from her post and was moving to India to take a job at the Tata Research Institute in New Delhi. TERI, as it’s known, is an obscure sustainable development group that receives funding from the UN and works on energy, biotech and forestry issues. McGinty’s husband, Karl Hausker, an employee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (an outpost of the national security establishment), had been assigned to India. Many thought McGinty would stay in DC, where her power in the administration would increase as the 2000 election approached. But apparently Tipper Gore convinced McGinty that she should follow her man.
Tipper had taken an unusual interest in McGinty’s personal life. In 1995, she learned that McGinty had repeatedly postponed her marriage to Hausker, citing the “crushing workload” that kept her tied down at the White House. Evidently eager that McGinty cement her union and therefore leave Washington, Tipper intervened, handled the wedding arrangements and shipped the newlyweds off on a monthlong honeymoon to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the rainforests of Papua, New Guinea.
In 2000, McGinty returned to the United States from India. It didn’t take her long to find a job–not with the Gore campaign but as the legislative affairs director of Troutman Sanders, a DC law firm with a reputation for defending the worst corporate polluters and using its lobbying might to carve up environmental legislation. In these unsavory surroundings, McGinty stayed true. “There would be no higher priority I would have”, she had once said, “than to help or serve Al Gore.” Opportunity did not dally. In the spring of 2000 McGinty co-founded a group called Environmentalists for Gore, designed to undercut the growing sentiment for greens to support Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary contests. Bradley had been endorsed by Friends of the Earth in 1999, and this slap in the face had set off alarm bells in the Gore camp.
Among McGinty’s labors for Gore in 2000 was her input in his energy plan, which promises $68 billion in subsidies and tax breaks for utilities. It so happens that among the biggest clients of McGinty’s new firm, Troutman Sanders, are American Electric Power, the Southern Company and the Edison Electric Institute, one of the main opponents of stringent new air pollution standards. When confronted with this confluence of interest, McGinty answered irrefutably, “I provide advice and have provided advice to anyone who asks me. Does the vice president ask for my views? Absolutely. Do people in the business community ask me for my views. Absolutely. And is that anything new? Absolutely not.”
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Al Gore has always been fascinated with the CIA and the technology of snooping. In 1994, he ordered the agency to conduct an analysis of the causes behind the collapse of nation states. Gore was hoping to prove his thesis that environmental factors, such as deforestation, overpopulation, desertification and poor sanitation, were the prime culprits. So the CIA spent the next six months entering more than 2 million pieces of information in its computers to come up with an answer. The result: the CIA’s analysts reported that civilizations fall because of extreme poverty and high rates of infant mortality.
But Gore didn’t give up on the spooks at Langley. In 1998 he convinced Clinton to issue an executive order expanding the agency’s charter to include two new projects: the environment and free trade. The CIA quickly adapted to its new mission. In the summer of 1999 the London Daily Telegraph reported that the CIA had been spying on Michael Meacher, environment minister for the Blair government, presumably because Meacher–nearly alone among the Blairites–had been skeptical about Monsanto’s plans to dump genetically engineered, or GE, crops on Europe.
The snooping came to light after the Telegraph made Freedom of Information Act requests to several US government agencies asking for any files on British ministers and elected officials. Most agencies replied that they had no files, while a few kept short biographical briefs, which they duly turned over. The exception was the Environmental Protection Agency, headed by Al Gore’s former staffer, Carol Browner. The EPA replied that it had a file on Meacher but refused to turn it over, saying it “originated within the Central Intelligence Agency”. The CIA also refused to release the file.
Meacher had drawn fire not only from Monsanto but from the US State and Commerce departments for his recalcitrance on GE crops. He had taken the position that such crops should not be commercially grown in Europe until they have been proved not to pose health problems or environmental risks. Meacher had also moved to reformulate a government panel on genetically engineered crops by reducing the number of industry representatives. The US was maintaining that any restrictions on Monsanto’s ability to market its GE crops was an unfair restraint on trade. Gore himself made frequent calls to members of the Blair government to drive home the point.
Meacher expressed astonishment that the CIA had a file on him, and said he had no idea what the reason might be. Chris Prescott, head of Friends of the Earth’s London office, offered one. “The immediate fear is that the CIA is working hand in glove with Monsanto to do anything they can to force this technology down our throats, whatever Democratic politicians have to say. What business is it of the CIA’s to worry about any politician’s views about biotechnology products?” Apparently, Prescott missed Clinton’s new directive to the Agency made at Gore’s instigation. Some wondered how thick the file might be on Prince Charles, Britain’s most outspoken foe of genetically engineered crops.
Yes. The Prince of Wales. Now there’s a real environmentalist.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at: email@example.com