Arts & Events

Opening the Book on How Polluters Game the System

Review by Gar Smith
Wednesday April 13, 2011 - 11:31:00 AM
The US Steel subsidiary's zinc mill in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1910.
The US Steel subsidiary's zinc mill in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1910.
By 1048, the pollution over Donora was so bad that streetlights had to be turned on in the middle of the day.
By 1048, the pollution over Donora was so bad that streetlights had to be turned on in the middle of the day.

NOTE: Author Benjamin Ross will be reading from his new book and answering questions in San Francisco this Thursday. Time and location: 7PM at the Green Arcade Bookstore, 1680 Market Street, San Francisco (near Gough).

The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment,By Benjamin Ross & Steven Amter (Oxford University Press, 2011)

One of the real surprises about The Polluters is that the co-authors are not green-hued activists or crusading journalists. Ben Ross and Steven Amter are, respectively, the president and senior environmental scientist at Disposal Safety, Inc., a DC-based consulting firm. Nonetheless, Ross and Amter have turned out a spellbinding and detailed compendium of corporate deceit and defiance that will leave readers fuming at the towering gall of the Polluting Class. 

Many modern environmentalists may be surprised to discover that the history of these Commons Criminals — and the bag of tricks they employ to avoid accountability — dates back more than a hundred years. As Ross and Amter document, the same pattern has held sway for more than a century: “When alarming findings do emerge, well-paid advocates concoct grounds for doubt” and studies are advanced “as a substitute for action.” (For more on this theme, read Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s fine book, Merchants of Doubt.) 

On those occasions when the public din grows too loud, industry’s response always progresses through the same six stages: (1) ignore the problem; (2) hire “experts” to suggest there is no problem; (3) acknowledge but downgrade the problem; (4) buy time by agreeing to “study” the problem; (5) buy pliant politicians to “legislate” the problem, (6) and finally, create “regulatory agencies” that are weak and subservient to industry. 

A History of Deadly Haze and Poisoned Waters 

The Polluters begins with a tale of two cities — Donora, Pennsylvania, and Sacramento, California. 

In the mining town of Donora, in 1948, a poisonous smog from the zinc works killed and sickened downwind residents and unleashed public anger at the arrogance of US Steel. Meanwhile, on the western edge of the country, an attempt by chemical industries to gain control of “pollution regulation” in California was being challenged by Governor Earl Warren. 

In both cases, citizen indignation seemed to turn the political tide in the public’s favor. But as the authors of The Polluters grimly recount: “once the spotlight of public attention turned elsewhere, [the public’s] hard-won gains proved phantom. The polluters had at their disposal a battery of weapon — political, economic, and scientific — forged by the chemical industry and its allies.” 

This uneven battle — where causes are lost in the course of muted conversations in the shadows of backrooms and boardroom —has defined the environmental struggle from the days of Teddy Roosevelt to the trials of the present occupant of the White House. 

“In struggle after struggle over the preceding decades,” the authors write, “business interests had preserved for themselves the freedom to foul their surroundings.” In Donora, no sooner had the suffocated victims been buried than the promised government investigation was sidetracked and the Public Health Service turned its attention elsewhere. In California, the authors relate, hoped-for “reform” legislation actually “enshrined manufacturers’ right to discharge waste, creating toothless Water Pollution Control Boards with powers so circumscribed that they had little choice but to ratify what industry decided to do.” 

The Chemical Barons — like the Railroad Barons and Mining Barons before them — shared the mindset of Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of “There Will Be Blood.” Anyone who dared to stand against them would be ignored or, if the situation required it, destroyed. 

Not even a hardheaded Bull Moose reformer like President Teddy Roosevelt could wrestle Anaconda Steel to the ground. Anaconda’s Montana copper mine was killing crops, cattle and a swatch of Teddy’s prized national forests within a 22-mile radius of its arsenic, lead and sulfur-belching smokestacks. 

When Roosevelt called company officials to Washington, Anaconda (which was controlled by Standard Oil and backed by Wall Street) refused to negotiate. In the absence of any federal air-pollution laws, Roosevelt threatened a federal lawsuit. Although reining in Anaconda’s chokehold on Montana’s air was one of Roosevelt’s priorities, the company managed to stall action until Roosevelt left office. 

The business-friendly Taft Administration continued to stall and eventually agreed to settle on Anaconda’s terms. Instead of insisting on a cleanup, Washington “accepted the company’s criterion for action — controls were required only if captured emissions could be sold to yield a profit.” (Anaconda eventually found a way to profit by selling arsenic as a way to “control” boll weevils and went on to create a host of deadly arsenic-based pesticides that were sprayed on farmland and orchards across the country.) 

Concerns and Cooptation 

During the industrial expansion that followed WWII, scientists raised red flags about the torrent of new synthetic compounds — from new fuels to pesticides — being pumped and spilled into the nation’s air and water. 

According to Ross and Amter, “a political and bureaucratic struggle ensued… through which the chemical industry preserved for itself the right to determine what would be emitted from its plants. Industry’s victory was codified in federal laws — the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, and the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955— that belied their reassuring titles by rejecting federal regulation.” 

“The leading corporations that had put the machinery into motion — the DuPonts, Union Carbides, and Standard Oils — watched as the spirit they had raised up sometime exceeded its intended tasks.” 

The Games Polluters Play 

The Polluters devotes an entire chapter to one of the chemical industry’s cherish goals: “Deregulating California’s Waters.” 

During the days of WWII, Los Angeles residents were shocked to discover that the city’s water wells were contaminated with chromium and presticides. Laws passed in 1907 and 1917 only required that companies request permits before dumping chemicals and wastes onto the ground or into local rivers. But even these week regulations were not enforced. 

In 1949, the state Health Department issued new regulations to prevent abuses. In response, the state’s industries banded together to form a lobbying group called the California Association of Producing Industries. CAPI poured its money into a successful campaign to shift concern away from corporate pollution by convincing the public that it was at greater risk from “household sewage.” 

The Dickey Commission, which was entrusted with establishing a new regulations to control pollution, issued a report that closely echoed CAPI’s talking points. The Commission praised the social value of industry and concluded that household sewage was a greater threat to public health than industrial waste. Industry’s wastes were characterized as innocuous and the prospect of chemical poisoning ranked as “remote.” 

Meanwhile, the same trope was being trotted out at the national level where the Manufacturing Chemists Association was promoting the idea that chemical dumping was not only a “legitimate” practice but was actually a “beneficial use of water resources” that needed to be encouraged! Moreover, the “unseemly costs” of regulation and disposal were to be discouraged as they threatened to “jeopardize… orderly economic development.” 

The Polluters is brimful with decades of similar tales that will have readers grinding their teeth in indignation and frustration. 

California eventually established Water Control Boards but these new agencies had little practical power since the state pointedly failed to set any binding water quality standards. The chem-friendly argument that dumping waste was “beneficial” wasn't overturned until the passage of the Porter-Cologne Act in 1969. This 42-year-old Act is still the major law guiding the state’s water quality. 

Turning Back the Toxic Tide 

The polluters held sway with the politicians for 20 years, until an unassuming marine biologist named Rachel Carson published a chilling warning about the threat of a Silent Spring, with no birdlife left to sing on pesticide-drenched trees and bushes. And then America’s rivers began to catch fire, LA’s smog became the kind of running gag that brought tears to the eyes, and a grassroots movement rose up and declared the first Earth Day in 1970. 

A new environmental movement began turning back the tide of pollution with a flood of lawsuits, protests and legislation. But despite the victories, the message Ross and Amter drive home in their 223-page corporate exposé is that “the techniques employed years ago in Donora and Sacramento have never gone out of favor.” 

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journaland co-founder of Environmentalists Against War (