25 Years after Earth Day, Environmentalists Wonder Which Way to Go

April 16, 1995|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER

For environmentalists, these are the best -- and worst -- of times.

Saturday marks the silver anniversary of Earth Day, that annual celebration of nature featuring outdoor concerts, rallies, parades, stream cleanups and tree plantings.

Twenty-five years ago, anxiety and even anger about pollution ,, prompted millions of Americans to pour into the streets to demonstrate their concern for the planet.

It was "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy," said American Heritage magazine. "American politics and public policy would never be the same again."

Earth Day spawned nearly a dozen major federal environmental laws, a greening of business attitudes and a quiet revolution in public education. It also gave a huge boost to a fledgling movement.

Today, environmentalists have a lot to celebrate: The air and water are cleaner, recycling has taken hold, and businesses are not producing as much hazardous waste as they once did.

Yet many activists are in a funk. The source of their gloom is Washington, where the Republican-led Congress is reviewing most of the environmental laws that have been enacted since that first Earth Day.

Legislation to limit new regulations, bolster property rights and require the federal government to pay for its mandates to states all have passed at least one house of Congress. Overhauls of regulations are pending for air, water, wetlands and endangered species.

That's not all. Many of the largest national environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, saw membership and donations drop by as much as 40 percent during the early 1990s.

It's enough to make any "greenie" feel besieged.

Beth Millemann, for one, who is head of the Coast Alliance, says she is thoroughly frustrated by the "horror stories" told at congressional hearings by farmers, fishermen and others who say that environmental red tape has destroyed their lives.

The new congressional leaders and their supporters are upbeat, by contrast. They say they want to restore common sense, restrain over-zealous regulators and reduce the cost of environmental protection.

Already, the country is spending $140 billion annually on cleanup programs -- more than 2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. The thicket of federal environmental forms and permits required of many companies is grist for many of the horror stories that have fueled the push for change.

The only changes to become law so far are a requirement that the federal government weigh the costs of mandates it passes to the states, and a six-month moratorium on adding new plants or animals to the endangered species list.

Earlier this month, the House transportation committee revised the 1972 Clean Water Act. The legislation, expected to arrive on the House floor next month, would reduce the number of protected wetlands and allow more chemical dumping into rivers and lakes.

It would also delay repairs to aging sewer systems.

Other proposed changes include:

* A moratorium on all new federal regulations -- including health and safety measures -- passed the House. The Senate voted instead for the option to veto any individual regulation it disliked.

* A regulatory reform bill requiring federal agencies to weigh the benefits of environmental regulations against their costs to industry. The House has passed a version of this legislation.

* A bill requiring the federal government to compensate property owners whenever federal action to protect endangered species or wetlands results in a 20 percent or more drop in land value.

* A bill requiring the Interior Department to come up with a list of national parks to be shut down.

* A bill barring the EPA from fining and prosecuting industries that turn themselves in after violating environmental regulations.

Attacks on rules

Critics in Congress contend that rigid federal rules protecting wetlands and endangered species have elevated critters over people. Local governments, these critics say, should have the power to make environmental decisions. To the detractors of the existing laws, environmentalists, especially those based in Washington, are the enemy.

Has America soured on environmentalism?

"I haven't seen anybody running for office say they weren't for protecting the environment," says Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin senator who organized the first Earth Day. The backlash at work is "anti-government rather than anti-environment," he suggests.

"We have clearly made progress," Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said last week in an interview with The Sun. "Our skies, our rivers are cleaner.

"But it is equally clear that much remains to be done."

Forty percent of our rivers, lakes and streams are too polluted for fishing or swimming. Two of five Americans live in cities that do not meet public health air-quality standards. Asthma is on the rise, breast cancer is on the rise. We've doubled the amount of chemicals we use in our food production."

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