Strawberry Fields Forever

Clinton's Love Affair with a Deadly Gas

Soon the methyl bromide lobby was knocking on the Clinton administration's door again. This time their customers were not strawberry growers but transnational timber companies eager to import cheap timber from Siberia and New Zealand. One problem was that the logs were infested with exotic pests that might have thrived and multiplied after the logs landed at ports in the Pacific Northwest, thereby menacing the timber giants' local inventories. Here the big players were Weyerhaeuser, Louisiana-Pacific, James River, and International Paper, the largest landowner in New Zealand, and also in Arkansas. In an Environmental Assessment issued in 1994, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service duly ratified the use of methyl bromide to gas the imported logs.

By this time the retreat was pell-mell. In Vienna, the Clinton administration led a December 1995 assault on the Montreal Protocol target dates over angry objections from many other signatories, particularly Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. At American instigation, the 2001 cutoff date for production and use of methyl bromide was shifted back to 2010, with a loophole to allow exemptions for "essential uses" after that date (i.e., for strawberries, tomatoes, and timber). For developing nations, deadlines on production and use were eliminated altogether, thus assuring a long-term future for chemical agriculture.

Back home, it only remained for the House Republicans to lend the Democrats political cover. Tom DeLay, the Republican majority whip and a former pest exterminator in Texas, announced that the ozone hole was a media myth and that any impediment to the use of methyl bromide should be swept aside. This is what permitted Mary Nichols and two other government officials (notably the State Department's Rafe Pomerance, a former head of Friends of the Earth, and the EPA's David Doniger, previously at NRDC) to proclaim that the only way to head off DeLay and the Republican ultras was to surrender what little ground on methyl bromide had not already been given up.

"We're ready," Nichols testified before the House Commerce Committee on January 26, "to work with stakeholders to craft an appropriate safety valve that would permit application for 'essential use' exemptions. We'll support a legislative remedy to this effect."

In other words, the Clinton administration is now setting the stage for a permanent exemption for methyl bromide from the Clean Air Act. To this end two U.S. senators have been enlisted to move the legislation. Max Baucus of Montana and John Chaffee of Rhode Island will soon inaugurate the funeral rites of the 20-year effort to rid the country of the deadly gas. The administration is eager to have the legislation passed before the all-important California and Florida primaries.

"The Clinton administration is choosing to buy votes from 114 large chemical farmers by undermining the Clean Air Act's ban of methyl bromide," said John Passacantando, the director of Ozone Action. "It's an outrageous deal that knowingly condemns thousands of people to fatal skin cancer."

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