Air Date: Week of June 7, 1996
Once a state at the vanguard of environmental protection regulations, in its current political climate, California's legislative pendulum is swinging towards deregulation. Tara Siler reports on the motions in the Golden State.
CURWOOD: California is one of the world's biggest trend-setters. Its entertainment industry shapes what's hip, hot, and happening. And the same could also be said when it comes to protecting the environment. From clean air to clean water, California pioneered regulations that are now taken for granted as national standards. But as reporter Tara Siler found, California may now be leading the nation the other way. Environmental activists charge that the state's Republican governor and state assembly are eroding decades of safeguards.
(Water flows from a tap.)
SILER: Most Californians take it for granted that the water flowing from their kitchen tap is safe. After all, their state has more stringent water protection standards than the Federal Government. California also boasts tough regulations governing clean air, the disposal of hazardous wastes, and protections for endangered species. California developed renewable energy programs and exported environmental technologies long before other states. Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club in Washington, DC, says California has been the environmental trend-setter for the rest of the nation since the 1970s.
WEISS: One of the reasons why California has boomed over the last 20 years is because they've take on a concerted effort to provide a healthy and safe environment for its citizens.
SILER: California's legacy of national leadership in environmental protection is not in dispute. The question up for debate now is whether the state still holds that title.
WALKER: The equation is simply that once upon a time not that long ago, California was justifiably proud of being a national and world leader in environmental protection.
SILER: Bill Walker of the California League of Conservation Voters is one of many environmentalists who say the Golden State's title as environmental leader is already tarnished, and he lays the blame at the doorstep of Governor Pete Wilson.
WALKER: This is sort of a report card on Pete Wilson's performance in his first term in office. Overall I can tell you that we gave him a C, which we have begun in recent years describing to people as probably a gentleman's C, that he probably wouldn't get these days. In other words, there was, you know, it was sort of like we gave him the benefit of a doubt, we'll give him a passing grade. In the intervening years we feel that he's sort of negated his right to get that benefit of the doubt.
SILER: If Bill Walker sounds bitter, it's because candidate Wilson promised to be California's environmental czar. Environmentalists say Governor Wilson is too easily swayed by corporate lobbyists. Soon after his election in 1990, they say, the Governor began scapegoating the state's environmental regulations for California's then souring economy. Jerry Merrill, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, says the assault has escalated since Governor Wilson's ill-fated bid for the White House.
MERRILL: For example, in air quality, we have always been the leader in terms of pollution control technology and in requiring cars to be clean, and recently, much to our horror and amazement, the Air Resources Board gave up the electric car mandate over the next 7 years. And so we gave up probably the most important position of leadership we had in the world in environmental protection.
SILER: In this hangar at the Alameda Naval Air Base, workers are grinding parts for electric cars. The 8 companies working on advanced transportation projects here are part of the Cal Start Program, which receives state, Federal, and private funding. The state electric car mandate would have required that 2% of cars on the California market in 1998 be electric. Now, Cal Start participant Lee Ackerson says a question mark hangs over the fledgling industry.
ACKERSON: People have made a lot of commitments, personal and business commitments, to pursue clean air technologies, and then to have the government back off on their commitments creates a climate where business is less willing to start investing money in those technologies.
SILER: And the impact is already being felt beyond its borders. As a result of the California decision, electric car programs in New York and Massachusetts are now under review and may wind up in court. Environmentalists say they severed another blow this year when Governor Wilson decided to extend the use of methyl bromide, an herbicide the Environmental Protection Agency calls an acute toxin. Under state law, California was supposed to halt its use of methyl bromide in April, because manufacturers failed to complete required health studies. But Governor Wilson convinced the legislature to pass a 2-year extension of the herbicide's use. Kevin Herglotz is with the California Food and Agriculture Department. He says a methyl bromide ban would have meant a financial disaster.
HERGLOTZ: There are no known economically viable alternatives to methyl bromide currently, which, without its use, would hamper our exports and also our crop and field production here in the state.
SILER: A Federal ban on methyl bromide is scheduled to take effect in the year 2001, but environmentalists fear that California agribusiness will keep winning extensions and the state will fail to lead the rest of the country away from using this herbicide. The methyl bromide and the electric car decisions are prime examples of the Wilson Administration's new approach to environmental protection, which include a sweeping cost-benefit analysis of all 28,000 state environmental regulations. James Strock, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, says the new policy is based on common sense.
STROCK: We're very proud of our program, very hopeful for it. And we believe the kind of tough, smart, cost-effective solutions that we're looking at demonstrate why the states that are leadership states that had stricter standards and have smarter process are the key national leaders in this area.
SILER: Secretary Strock cites a long list of successes on behalf of Governor Wilson, including progress in air quality and increase in protected wetlands. And major strides in the clean-up of selected Superfund sites known as brownfields.
(A court hammer strikes. Man: "Questions or debate? Secretary, please call the role on the confirmation." Secretary: "Alquist? [answer: "Aye."] Aiella? [answer: "Aye."] Beverly? [answer: "Aye."]")
SILER: Most battles over California's environment begin here in the state legislature in Sacramento. Bill Walker of the California League of Conservation Voters says the blame for California's slide in environmental protection must be shared with the new Republican majority in the state assembly.
WALKER: California has joined the ranks of what we call the wise use states. The Idahos, Montanas, Arizonas, where extreme right-wingers are heading an environmental agenda that basically defies science, logic, and reason.
SILER: In the state assembly, Walker says drinking water and air quality standards are under attack, as is the state's Endangered Species Act and the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires that before construction begins developers prove their projects won't harm the environment. Environmentalists are looking to the Democratic majority in the State Senate to hold the line against what they call the assault on California's basic environmental protections. While Republican efforts to weaken national environmental standards have stalled in the nation's Capitol, Dan Weiss of the Sierra Club in Washington, DC, says the campaign against California's environmental protections is well underway.
WEISS: Hopefully, the Californians will oppose efforts to roll back some of their groundbreaking environmental protection laws. They've gained a lot but there's a lot at risk. We hope that they'll continue to move forward, either with the governor or against him if need be.
SILER: Environmentalists say they are tracking hundreds of environmental bills in the legislature. At least some of those are expected to reach the governor's desk. Last year the California League of Conservation Voters reported that of the 6 pro-environmental bills sent to Governor Wilson, he signed 3 and vetoed 3. Of the 8 anti-environmental bills passed, the group says Governor Wilson signed every one. For Living on Earth, this is Tara Siler.
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