Authors: E. G. Vallianatos
wrote this book to tell the story of what I learned at the Environmental Protection Agency, where I worked from 1979 to 2004. This story—secret, exasperating, and tragic—explains why and how the chemical and other industries have captured the EPA and turned it from an environmental protection agency into a polluters’ protection agency.
Both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and the White House, have been responsible for this dangerous subversion. Taken in by the strategies and the financial clout of global industries, they have in turn facilitated the practical and moral breakdown at the agency. This story—how the EPA became a target of polluters, and how industrial polluters and their supporters in the White House and Congress remade EPA in their own image—is of immense importance both to the health of Americans and to the integrity of the natural world.
I spent most of my career in the EPA’s Office of Pesticides Programs, where the regulation of powerful toxins is debated—and where the chemical pipeline that leads directly onto our food (and into our bodies) is opened or shut. While I touch on other causes of pollution of air and water, the primary focus of this book is on pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals used on farms and in homes, on lawns and in forests—and which collectively have frightful effects on human and ecological health that are still largely hidden from public view. This fact should be very troubling to all Americans.
It is simply not possible to understand why the EPA behaves the way it does without appreciating the enormous power of America’s industrial farmers and their allies in the chemical pesticide industries, which currently do about $40 billion per year in business. For decades, industry lobbyists have preached the gospel of unregulated capitalism, and Americans have bought it. Today, it seems, the entire government is at the service of the private interests of America’s corporate class. In January 2007, the EPA even approved a promotional slogan that pesticide companies inserted onto the label of their sprays: “This insecticide is dedicated to a healthier world.”
Far from simply making a narrow case against pesticides, this book offers a broad overview of the failure of environmental protection in the United States over the last seventy-five years—the same period, ironically, that some consider to have been the heyday of environmental regulation. This is environmental history our government and the industries don’t want us to know. But here it is, constructed with the help of secret government documents.
Pesticides simply unify the story: the EPA offered me the documentary evidence to show the dangerous disregard for human health and the environment in the United States government, and in the industries it has sworn to oversee.
makes public a secret history of pollution in the United States.
The EPA is an agency with the legal, and I would say sacred, responsibility of safeguarding our health and the health of the natural world. The decisions the EPA makes—or does not make—affect our lives in deep and subtle ways. These decisions are often more important and longer lasting than decisions made by any other part of the government.
To say the least, the troubles within the EPA mirror the troubles that have bedeviled our government from its very beginning. Then as now, powerful economic interests have worked tirelessly to handcuff government oversight. Two hundred fifty years ago, Alexander Hamilton denounced this state of affairs; in Hamilton’s mind, a government bought and sold is worthless.
In recent decades, from the 1940s to the dawn of the twenty-first century, it has seemed as if government has been working for
industry rather than overseeing it. Most government and academic scientists working on agricultural practices and pest control have obdurately ignored research into nature’s intricate and subtle workings. Instead, they have smoothed the way for the poisonous (and hugely profitable) concoctions of the chemical industry, and they are now doing the same for the rapidly growing field of genetic crop engineering, another Trojan horse of agribusiness.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War provided the ideological context for the government’s push for expanding agribusiness at the expense of the family farm. Facing the Communist Soviet Union, which wrecked peasant agriculture for its own version of state agribusiness, the United States adopted its own imperial form of farming, focusing on maximizing production and profit on ever-larger industrial-scale farms. Pesticides became more than just a gargantuan industry of their own; they became the very glue of this imperial system.
Such a tectonic shift—from small, family-run, and largely nontoxic farms to industrial-scale, intensely toxic industrial farms—had ecologists and health experts worried from the beginning. Margery W. Shaw, a scientist and physician writing in 1970 (the year the EPA came into being), feared that the introduction of hundreds of chemicals into the environment would result in a “genetic catastrophe.”
Six years later, at a conference in Washington on “Women and the Workplace,” three American scientists (Eula Bingham, Marvin S. Legator, and Stephen J. Rinkus) warned of the high price we were likely to pay for the use of the “miracles” of the chemical age. Scientists, they wrote, “can only speculate on the detrimental effects on the genetic pool from injurious chemical exposure. In terms of ourselves as a population of living organisms, we are suffering chemical shock.”
A few years after this, my EPA colleague George Beusch reflected on his early years in the chemical business, including a New Jersey factory he knew where workers were manufacturing explosives. “Their skin would turn yellow and at that moment they knew it was time to die, which they did without much protest,” Beusch recalled to me. “We called them the ‘yellow canaries.’
“In other jobs I had with chemical companies, I learned to breathe—almost instinctively—with only the upper part of my lungs. Trying to make a workplace safe isn’t easy, for it takes a lot of dollars. Money, not human health and welfare, is the heart and soul of that corporate business. People are cheap these days. The chemical industry can kill as many workers as they have at any one time, yet there are still more workers waiting outside to take their place. And the government always looks the other way while the worker gasps for breath.”
Writing in 1994, two scientists of the United Nations University, Robert Ayres and Udo Simonis, described the spread of industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as “a cancer.” Industrialization in its present form, they said, “is a process of uncontrolled, unsustainable ‘growth’ that eventually destroys its host—the biosphere.”
Like other synthetic petrochemicals, and like radiation, pesticides affect life processes all the way down to the genes. And since Americans have been eating food contaminated by pesticides for more than seventy years, the genetic impact of pesticides must be correspondingly large.
Indeed, underlying most of the problems discussed in this book is the overwhelming power over ecological and human health held by this country’s agricultural economy, which is controlled by fewer and fewer companies.
For example, IBP, ConAgra Beef, Excel Corporation (Cargill), and Farmland National Beef Packing Company slaughtered 79 percent of cattle in the United States in 1998. Six companies—Smithfield, IBP, ConAgra (Swift), Cargill (Excel), Farmland Industries, and Hormel Foods—slaughtered 75 percent of all pigs in the country in 1999. Four companies—Cargill (Nutrena), Purina Mills (Koch Industries), Central Soya, and Consolidated Nutrition (ADM and AGP)—controlled all feed plants in the United States by 1994. Also, by 1997, four companies (Cargill, ADM Milling, Continental Grain, and Bunge) controlled America’s grain trade: they managed 24 percent of the grains, 39 percent of the facilities for storing grain, and 59 percent of the grain export facilities in the country.
The EPA has been standing alongside and (mostly) cheering these industries for nearly fifty years. Like most administrative and policy functions of EPA, funding for research and regulatory work is shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. A very small number of officials have enormous control over what gets funded. If a political appointee sees a chance to increase his prestige or the influence of a corporation, he will divert money from one activity to another, close a government laboratory, and hire a private laboratory more sympathetic to the desires of his clients in industry. During the last years of the George W. Bush administration, the EPA dismantled its libraries, the very foundation of its institutional memory. Why? Because the libraries were full of EPA-funded studies documenting the adverse effects of chemicals made by companies that had supported Bush’s candidacy.
As a rule, these industries lobby tirelessly for the dissolution of the country’s environmental bureaucracy and for a return to a nineteenth-century version of unregulated “free enterprise.” Their representatives arrive for EPA meetings well dressed and well prepared to defend their interests. They know how to play the game: they come to meetings with slides, computer programs, fancy jargon, and colorful handouts, pretending to deliver a scholarly exercise in the manner of a college seminar or a defense of a doctoral thesis. Taking their cue, EPA staffers behave like students eager to learn from their chemical masters, allowing them to go on with their spurious presentations and never challenging their outrageous claims.
This entire book is, in a sense, about a bureaucracy going mad. The EPA bureaucracy is “civilized,” and it may appear far removed from the darker Soviet forms written about by people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, along with so many scientists, economists, lawyers, and experts in many other important disciplines of useful knowledge, the EPA might easily fit in Plato’s Republic: their work—protecting the natural world and the health of people—is, in theory at least, entirely virtuous.
The trouble is, as Solzhenitsyn knew too well, both individual people and entire bureaucracies are susceptible to corruption. Appoint a corrupt administrator at EPA, as Ronald Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch, and the disease spreads fast through the entire bureaucratic system. This does not mean bureaucrats are more prone to corruption than other people; bureaucrats are just trying to make a living, and like everyone else, they want promotions and higher salaries. They follow the leadership of their organizations, which in the case of the EPA always mirrors the desires of the White House and Congress—and thus, inevitably, of the industries that control the country’s politics.