Come Spew on Us

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, August 1997

Come Spew on Us

How best to lure industry to New York State? With a license to pollute, of course.
By Bill Donahue

For The Record

Can Spotted-Owl-Safe Sushi Be Far Behind?
As the Pacific Rivers Council moves on to the second phase of its "Salmon-Safe" foods campaign this month, one question will be on many a shopper's lips: Does Salmon-Safe Rocky Road have a fishy aftertaste? In other words, Pacific Rivers has a whopper of a perception problem on its hands. "Consumers haven't yet made the connection between food products and salmon habitat," admits Pacific Rivers spokesman Daniel Kent. In phase two, the council — which last spring awarded "Salmon-Safe" certification to regional vineyards and vegetable farms that agreed to limit the use of stream-bound pesticides — is now targeting beef and dairy farms. But the public learning curve promises to be steep, as evidenced by the response of Anne Haley, office manager at The Daily Grind Natural Food Store in Portland, Oregon, who apparently hadn't heard about her employer's participation in the program. "Salmon what? We don't carry fish. Or beef. We're a vegetarian food store."

Breaking the Fall
If one-ton walruses begin dropping from the 100-foot cliffs overlooking Maggie Beach in Alaska's Togiak National Wildlife Refuge this month, Aaron Archibeque wants everyone to know something: This is not the world's first marine-mammal death cult. "We've tried to get the facts out, but the media doesn't seem interested in facts," sighs the frustrated refuge manager, discussing last August's tragedy, in which 50 walruses plummeted to their deaths — the third such collective plunge, resulting in 109 fatalities, in three years." It's not like they're committing mass suicide. They're not." Of course, it doesn't help that science's best attempt at explanation — that shifting sand dunes have confused the walruses — is little more than an educated guess. Until experts can shed more light, Archibeque and his staff plan to employ a simple strategy: The rangers will run around flapping colorful rain slickers to shoo animals away from the edge. "We truly hope this will work," says deputy refuge manager Donna Stovall, "but sadly, with an animal that size, if it wants to go there's not much we can do to stop it."

Home Is Where the Cash Is
Undeniably, the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour has a bright future in Indianapolis, Dallas, and even New York. What's a little less clear, in the aftermath of its abruptly canceled June stop in Manhattan Beach, California, is whether the sport still has a home where it all started. On May 13, in a ruling that caught many by surprise, the state Coastal Commission banned the AVP, or any other for-profit group, from charging admission for events held on public beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Which, according to AVP officials, seriously jeopardizes the tour's ability to hold future events there. "The sport has simply grown up," says AVP chief operating officer Lon Monk, adding that the organization strongly disputes allegations that its events restrict beach access for other users and cause environmental damage, and will vigorously fight the commission's ruling. "The bottom line is, if beach volleyball is to stay on the beaches of California, we absolutely have to be able to charge admission."

— Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta
Imagine, if you will: New York's Governor George Pataki steps into a shadowy back room to meet with a corporate titan. Smog billows from his teeth and, in a hushed tone, he cuts the Faustian deal. "Please," he implores, "build your plant in our state. We'll give you property tax breaks. We'll forgive loans. And, my dear friend, you can smother New York in horrible toxins."

Alas, this scenario isn't all that far-fetched. Pataki recently became the first governor ever to entice a business to set up shop in his state by offering it license to pollute, establishing a precedent that promises to further foul the skies of the nation's third most populous state and that may serve as a model for other communities willing to place job creation above clean air. Playing within the rules of a system that some environmentalists regard as absurd, Pataki bequeathed 150 pollution credits to windshield manufacturer Guardian Glass in exchange for a promise that the company will build a new plant in the town of Geneva, bringing 260 new jobs to the depressed community of 14,800 about 50 miles southeast of Rochester — and about as much nitrogen oxide as an average coal — fired power plant.

Pollution credits, for those not already familiar with the system, are essentially permission slips to sully the air; companies and government agencies whose emissions fall below levels allowed by the federal Clean Air Act sell them to other polluters who might otherwise face huge fines for exceeding their allotment. Each of the credits given to Guardian allows the emission of one ton of nitrogen oxide, an acid-rain-causing gas, and typically sells for $1,000 to $3,000 apiece. Starting next year, the glass manufacturer will begin wafting toxins over Geneva and the nearby Finger Lakes, an area that already receives some of the nation's highest concentrations of acid rain. How can government justify bringing another polluter into such an already besmirched region? "This deal," says John Melia of the state's economic development agency, "is going to improve the air quality of New York."

Yes, the logic of pollution-credit trading is indeed a bit tortuous. What Melia means to say is that Guardian's future spewage has already been offset by reductions at myriad New York state agencies. Pataki pooled those agencies' accumulated pollution credits and then granted just a portion of those credits to Guardian, in accordance with federal law: The Clean Air Act stipulates that every time 100 credits are traded, at least an additional 15 must be permanently retired. Indeed, such pollution-reducing requirements are a hallmark of the trading programs now flourishing in virtually every state, a fact that delights Joe Goffman, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which in 1990 convinced Congress to endorse pollution trading. Goffman, predictably, says he regards Pataki's gift to Guardian not as a flaw in the system, but merely an unfortunate side effect. "Sure, Pataki abused the idea. He should have let taxpayers reap the environmental benefits of the state's reduced emissions," Goffman says. "Still, I think of it sort of like the mole on Cindy Crawford's face — a small blemish on something quite beautiful."

But Rick Hind, a legislative director for Greenpeace, is considerably less sanguine. "Why doesn't he just give amnesty to drug dealers, too?" Hind asks. "The whole idea of pollution credits is little more than political jujitsu. Inevitably this system just moves pollution around — usually by dumping smog on poor communities who can't fight back."

Certainly this seems to be the case in Geneva, which will be saddled with Guardian's pollution partly because its formal opposition to Pataki's scheme was almost nonexistent. And the potential for similar abuse nationwide is great: While no other states have as yet decided to mimic New York's plan, local governments in Delaware, Texas, and Illinois have begun facilitating pollution-credit trades, acting as middlemen to attract smog-intensive industry. Meanwhile, the ghettoization of smog in New York is likely to continue. All state agencies are still under orders to stockpile pollution credits, and Melia says that the governor may eventually use these credits as a lure. "Sure, we'd do it again," Melia says. "The opposition to this is ridiculous. We're creating jobs. Think about it: If you needed a job, do you really think you'd be running around saying that this is deplorable?"

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