*Article on the latest battles of the Bronx Clean Air Coalition*
Environmental Sell Out
by Lorna Salzman submitted to En Nueva York- the newsletter of the National
Congress for Puerto Rican Rights-NYC May 1996
The article "Democracy for Hire:' (The Ecologist. Sept/Oct 1995) may have shocked many, but not those of us who have watched mainstream environmental groups compromise and sell out because they have thrown their lot in with those whose largess supports their congressional committee leaders, mass media, corporate givers and wealthy foundations anxious to give funds to only the most reputable (ie. noncontroversial and appeasing) organizations.
As a result, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental
Defense Fund (EDF) between them probably monopolize half of all foundation grants in the US. Staff and board members of these group either sit on foundation boards or have cultivated close relationships with them in order to influence how and where these foundations spend their money.
What this means to underfunded, grassroots and less conciliatory environmental groups is obvious in financial terms. In political terms, it means that when government, the press or corporation need to credibility on an environmental issue, they quickly turn to these same groups, whose name, status, influence and opinions are interpreted as representing the "environmental community"when, in most cases, the exact opposite is true.
An example of this took place in New York. Years ago, the Department of Transportation
targeted a parcel of vacant, publicly-owned land on the South Bronx waterfront as a freight center. It was suppose to contribute to cleaner air (the area nearby has the highest asthma rate in New York City) decreased truck traffic, decreased energy consumption, create a revival of freight transport, increase local jobs, and develop sound use of the waterfront for water dependent uses, rather than luxury high-rise housing or"yuppy" commercial development.
But a politically, well-connected developer prevailed on the Department of Transportation to renege on it's commitment to the freight center and to publicly-owned and public interest uses of the site. Instead, the Department signed a 99-year lease with the developer to construct an industrial park on
The developer knew that it stood a better chance of getting public and media support for the project if it had the''the environmental community" on its side. Thus a representative of the Empire State Economic Development Authority, which was responsible for privatizing the site, contacted Alan Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council and proposed that the industrial park could include a drinking and pulp plant which utilized recycled newsprint. Hershkowitz jumped at the opportunity and sought some Swedish sponsors for the plant. Well-placed news articles demonstrated how the giveaway of this land to a private developer with gigantic subsidies that would effectively balance out the developer's entire investment (subsidies which were never mentioned) would be beneficial and environmentally sound.
Community groups and nearby residents disagreed. Together wilh the Urban Environmental Alliance, they went to court to challenge the deal. They won the first round but lost the appeal. The dispute will now go to the state appellate court. NRDC was used, in effect, as the battleaxe to split the community;NRDC was supported by a well-funded local development group, Banana Kelly, but opposed by the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, the Business/Labor/Community Coalition, and other smaller groups and individuals.
To counter NRDC's bad "image" from the opposition, the New York Times and The New Yorker ran an extensive favorable coverage of the plan. All the cogent facts were omitted and stress placed on NRDC's credibility, while the leading lawyer and opponent was dismissed as the "rail buff." One omitted fact was that the freight center had been the idea of the Department of Transponation not the opposing "rail buff".
Another was that there are several alternate sites for a pulp plant in the South Bronx (but only one for the freight center). NRDC rejected them all, claiming that they were "contaminated." In fact, they rejected the other sites for one main reason; by locating on publicly-owned land. they could avoid any indepth environmental review and the plan for the industrial park and plant could be expedned. NRDC's Hershkowitz has blasted opponents for misusing the environmental process. But the fact that this site is NRDC's preferred site because it will escape environmental review undermines his accusation.
In addition, the state's own environmental consultants produced studies clearly indicating that in terms of environmental impact, the industrial park would have far graver impact than the freight center. This report and several others were deliberately withheld from the public (and from thecourts too, apparently).
Community, grassroots and regional environmental groups who do not want to appease
corporations, media or the US Congress are thus at a dual disadvantage; they are deprived of funds because NRDC and EDF get most of the foundation funding and NRDC and EDF get most of the funding because funders know they will be non-confrontational and work within the system (for example, EDF's campaign to get McDonald's to switch to paper trays instead of styrofoam). When NRDC and EDF get favorable press treatment for their willingness to "work with corporations", the funders can feel justified in having supported these groups. A NRDC representative recently stated baldly: we don't need to do anything different." That statetment indicates that the speaker is either out of touch with reality or actively working to subvert any movement for real social change.
Some other Links
Interglobal Communication-IGC a network of activists