Strawberry Fields Forever

Clinton's Love Affair with a Deadly Gas

The way the Democrats and the green bureaucrats in Washington D.C. tell the story, it's the rape-and-pillage Republicans who are now sabotaging efforts to save the ozone layer.

At the end of last year, Mary Nichols, a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency and a former executive at the Natural Resources Defense Council, began calling all her friends and contacts in the capital's enviro set. Her message: They should rally behind her efforts to forge compromise on methyl bromide with the big agro-chemical farmers in California and Florida, before the radical Republicans eviscerate the Clean Air Act.

Methyl bromide lies at the heart of many of the problems associated with chemical-intensive farming, as well as with ozone depletion. It's a gas used as a fumigant in preparation of fields for crops such as strawberries, tomatoes, and tobacco. Drive through the Pajaro Valley around Watsonville, 90 miles south of San Francisco, where most of the nation's strawberries are grown, and you might see acre after acre of black plastic stretched over the fields. The strawberry growers pump in methyl bromide under the plastic, wiping out every living thing that would inhibit maximum production of strawberries. The long-suffering plants are then dosed with pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemical treatments.

The fumigant is classified as among the most deadly toxins in agro-industrial use, which is why both the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters support bans on its use and production. Long-term exposure to nonlethal doses causes seizures, respiratory ailments, cancer, and birth defects. When methyl bromide escapes into the atmosphere it steadily shreds the ozone layer, admitting ultraviolet radiation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that more than 10 percent of the ozone hole hovering above the northern hemisphere is attributable to methyl bromide.

Back in 1990 the methyl bromide lobby made great efforts to get President George Bush to protect the gas from any reduction in output or use, on the grounds that it was "essential" to agriculture. But Bush held firm and the re-authorization of the Clean Air Act in 1990 scheduled a complete ban on the domestic production and use of methyl bromide by 2001.

In the same year, the Bush administration signed onto the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals. The Montreal Protocol called for a similar ban on production and use of methyl bromide in advanced industrial nations by 2001. For developing nations the target date was 2010.

As the Reagan-Bush era ended in 1992, the methyl bromide lobby regrouped. And now, four years later, the lobby is on the verge of attaining all its objectives.

The Clinton administration's desperate fight to win ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement offered the lobby its opportunity. As they scraped the barrel for every vote, Clinton and his trade rep, Mickey Kantor, found a bloc of 20 California and Florida representatives prepared to withhold their "Yes" votes until they extracted a promise by the administration to take another look at the methyl bromide situation. Kantor sealed the deal in a letter to the Florida Growers Association: "I have spoken with Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and I want to assure you that the administration recognizes the potential harm to your industry and others unless a satisfactory solution is found, and the President has asked me to assure you that this effort will be given a very high priority." Kantor concluded with a pledge that as a last resort the President would "guarantee that agricultural producers are not left without commercially viable means" to use methyl bromide.

Meanwhile, former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy was cutting his own deal on the fumigant. His brother was running for the Espy house seat in Mississippi vacated when Mike was summoned to run the Agriculture Department. Secretary Espy contacted the Sun-Diamond Co., a big methyl bromide user in Florida, and promised his vigorous input to defend the gas, if in return Sun-Diamond would pony up some money for Brother Espy's race. The brother lost, but Espy kept his end of the bargain all the same.

The methyl bromide lobby was only too delighted to help bring NAFTA into being, since they knew well enough that in the end, whether in 2001 or 2010 or 2020, methyl bromide will be banned in the U.S., by which time much chemical-intensive agriculture will have been shifted to Mexico and further south. So the game is to make sure that curbs on methyl bromide use in the developing countries will be indefinitely postponed.

There was a specifically Arkansas angle to the plot, as well. Methyl bromide production is dominated by three companies worldwide: Israel's Dead Sea Chemical Company, the Great Lakes Chemical Company, and the Ethyl Corporation, an offshoot of James River, the giant timber and paper concern. The latter two companies have their methyl bromide production plants in the toxin-friendly state of Arkansas.

During the 1980s and early 1990s the two Arkansas companies had asked then-Governor Clinton, Senator David Pryor, and former Rep. Beryl Anthony (later bounced from Congress in the check-kiting scandal, and now a lobbyist for Great Lakes Chemical) for protection from the Israeli competition. Their wish was duly fulfilled. Great Lakes Chemical and Ethyl have long been generous givers to Clinton's political war chest. The Ethyl Corporation's lobbyist in Washington is the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, and Phillips, of which Mickey Kantor was a conspicuous partner.

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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