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Environmental issues come of age in the 1990s

As the nation prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, public opinion is moving the political debate to "greener" fields. During the latter half of the 1980s, there was a relatively quiet but large change in public attitudes about the importance of the environment and the role of government in protecting increasingly endangered and dwindling natural resources. The shift in attitudes is continuing, and the 1990s are ushering in an era of environmental activism at the grassroots level and in the states.

A Gallup poll released after the 1988 presidential election concluded that the environment was the No. 1 concern of the voting public. More surprisingly, the poll indicated that the United States could be capable of electing a president based solely on the candidate's environmental agenda by as early as 1992. If skyrocketing membership rolls in national environmental organizations are any indication, the Gallup poll is right on target. The 5.8 million-member National Wildlife Federation, the largest such organization in the United States, added 700,000 new members in 1988 alone. "The public hasn't responded like this since the early 1970s," says federation spokesperson Lisa Sylvester. An annual survey of college freshmen released in February reported that 86 percent of the 216,362 students polled said "the federal government is not doing enough to control pollution." The UCLA-based survey has polled college freshmen the last 24 years and has accurately predicted, among other trends, the wave of disillusionment and conservatism among young voters that Ronald Reagan rode on his way to the White House. Although interest in the environment, according to past polls, reached an all-time low in the mid-1980s, in five short years the environment has rebounded to become the central concern of many of tomorrow's lawmakers and business leaders.

Environmentalists celebrating Earth Day hope a bright new day is dawning for public awareness of preserving the planet as a safe place for future generations. Many key environmental battles are expected at the state level. Photo by Paul Beaty

The signs of this newly emerging environmental awareness are unmistakable. The recent growth at the neighborhood grocery store of consumer goods labelled environmentally safe, the popular media's fascination with the greenhouse effect, and the outrage over the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March of 1989 are all indications. True to the UCLA survey, a dozen Illinois college and university environmental groups have sprung up virtually overnight. On February 26, college activists staged rallies at 49 state capitals, including Springfield, to protest federally sanctioned logging at national forests. "We are ushering in a new decade of environmental consciousness. This is the movement of the Nineties," says Blair Holman, spokesperson for the University of North Carolina-based Student Environmental Action Coalition. In Illinois and elsewhere, environmental groups are forming even at the high school level. "Environmentally conscious students are younger and younger," says Renee Robinson, a graduate student in energy studies at Sangamon State University. "As these students enter college, they know more and can do more as activists. For these students, concern for the environment is not just a fad; it's their future," says Robinson, who heads the SSU Students Allied for a Greener Earth. "For the first time in history, activists are beginning to confront powerful institutions as equals," says Peter Bahouth, executive director of Greenpeace in the United States.

The rise of environmental awareness has not been lost on many state legislators and on Gov. James R. Thompson. In his State of the State address in January, Thompson quoted the late American forester Gifford Pinchot in calling on the General Assembly to address several pressing environmental issues, including shrinking landfill space and ur-

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ban air quality: "History will judge us by the natural resources we leave for our children and grandchildren." Three months earlier, Thompson had kicked off the six-month countdown to Earth Day and sounded more like a member of the West German Green Party than a pragmatic Republican governor well versed in the art of compromise: "If our civilization is to survive, we must begin now to preserve our abundant natural resources while maintaining a planet where all forms of life can live and prosper. We must, first and foremost, teach our children the fundamentals of good environmental stewardship."

But as environmental activists like to say: "A politician who just talks a mean game cannot make the water any clearer or air any cleaner." Thompson has defended his four-term environmental record. High on Thompson's own list of accomplishments is the $1.2 billion set aside in Build Illinois bonds to fund community wastewater treatment plants. Thompson also points to the passage of both the Groundwater Protection Act and the Solid Waste Management Act during the past five years as testimony to a strong environmental record.

Progress in solid waste management is the legislative highlight of the past decade for many environmentalists. In the past five years, Illinois has become a leader in solid waste management, otherwise known as the question: "Where do we stash our trash?" In 1986, faced with a crisis of running out of landfill space in six to eight years, the General Assembly passed the Solid Waste Management Act and amended it in 1989. All counties must have state-approved solid waste management plans according to a timetable set by the act. The act creates an idealized waste hierarchy wherein garbage is to be sent to a local landfill only after all other avenues are exhausted. First, individuals and communities are to reduce waste at the source, so the volume of waste needing disposal is decreased. After waste reduction, the act encourages recycling and incineration before disposal in landfills. Counties face deadlines set by the act and by the the crisis in landfill space. There is progress in recycling, but it is modest: The percentage of Illinois waste recycled has increased in a decade from 2 percent to 6 percent today. The goal set by Thompson in his State of the State address is to recycle half the state's waste by the end of the century.

This field near LeRoy in McLean County represents some of the best farmland in the world. Agriculture will be center stage for much environmental legislation in the 1990s. Soil erosion, wetlands reclamation, ground-water contamination, pesticide and fertilizer regulations and new agricultural practices head a long list of issues affecting Illinois farmers. Photo by Paul Beaty

'. . . we must begin now to preserve our abundant natural resources while maintaining a planet where all forms of life can live and prosper'

Passage of the 1986 Solid Waste Management Act may have been a beginning, but Illinois environmentalists are in general agreement that the state ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack when its environmental agenda is compared to those of the 49 other states. California and Connecticut are requiring newspapers to use percentages of recycled newsprint. Florida imposes a tax on virgin newsprint to punish publishers for not using recycled paper. Hawaii requires ozone-depleting refrigerants to be recycled in automobile air conditioners. Vermont will prohibit the sale of automobiles that use chlorofluorocarbons by 1993. Oregon banned the sale of styrofoam packaging made with chlorofluorocarbons. Legislation similar to all of these was defeated in the Illinois General Assembly last year. Other states are progressively attacking issues Illinois is likely to stay away from for several more years, say environmentalists. Consider disposable diapers. Nebraska has already banned nonbiodegradable diapers. In December, Vermont's Democratic Gov. Madeleine Kunin proposed to ban all disposable diapers in the state. The issue of diapers may seem irrelevant, but it is not: Almost 18 billion disposable diapers are deposited in the nation's landfills, accounting for 2 percent of all landfill trash by weight, according to the Environmental Action Fund.

One reason why Illinois lags behind the more progressive states in passing environmental legislation is that it is a highly industrialized state, and industry is well versed in squelching

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legislation that is deemed anti-business. State Rep. Clem Balanoff(D-35, Chicago) says environmental organizations "get beat up" by the Chemical Industries Council, the Illinois Manufacturers' Association and the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, three potent lobbying forces within the walls of the State-house.

From an automobile industry perspective, Herman likens the growing interest in pro-environmental Features to the popular support for safety features in the '70s and '80s

This past session there were literally hundreds of environmental bills. Of the more ambitious that never reached the governor's desk was one that sought to tax agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. The revenue generated from the agricultural tax was targeted to educate Illinois farmers about agricultural practices that use less fertilizers and pesticides like low-input farming and integrated pest management. The tax revenue was also to be used to further inventory groundwater geology. As the surging environmental momentum leading up to Earth Day is carried into the upcoming session and beyond, state activists say the legislation of the past decade has merely laid the groundwork. "The environment is going to be one of the biggest, if not 'The Issue,' this decade," says state Rep. Peg McDonnell Breslin (D-75, Ottawa).

Business is quickly learning that for some popular environmental issues, it's either adapt or be left out in the cold. For example, in response to the popular push to ban plastic packaging by some municipalities and states, plastics manufacturers quickly organized a plastics recycling campaign. Multinational giants like Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Exxon and Du Pont have formed what is called the Council for Solid Waste Solutions. The council, which was formed to advance plastics recycling, has made technological inroads in overcoming barriers to recycle many plastics. "Our view is banning plastics is a knee-jerk reaction. Recycling is the answer," says Frank Aronhalt, environmental affairs director for Du Pont. Charles Herman, regional manager for the state government relations division of the Ford Motor Co., says big business is aware of the groundswell of public support for pro-environmental legislation. Ford recently undertook a comprehensive study examining the attitudes of business leaders, lawmakers, educators and others. According to Herman, the study indicated to Ford that "green power is rising." From an automobile industry perspective, Herman likens the growing interest in pro-environmental features to the popular support for automotive safety features in the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of the difficult but possibly improving legislative cli-

Rep. Balanoff: environmental legislator

Last October, first-term state Rep. Clem Balanoff (D-35, Chicago) stepped up to the speaker's podium to accept an award as an "outstanding legislator" from state environmental activists. Looking over the packed room at the annual Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) statewide conference in Springfield, Balanoff loosened up and treated the audience of 200 or so to several war stories, Illinois lawmaking-style. He was at a House committee meeting, supporting a bill to ban all polystyrene packaging in fast food restaurants. This is the clamshell-type among the mountain of packaging that helps choke Illinois' shrinking landfill space. Balanoff told the crowd that one lawmaker (unnamed) opposed the bill, arguing that without the styrofoam packaging he might get food stains on his pants.

While the story brought chuckles from Balanoff and the audience, for Balanoff, environmental legislation is not generally a laughing matter. In his district on the southeast side of Chicago, environmental pollution can be a matter of life and death. Balanoff describes the district as having "the largest concentration of toxic waste dumps on the North American continent." Mammoth landfills, toxic dumps, chemical plants and steel mills dot the district's landscape. The rates of cancer and related diseases are almost uniformly higher there than the statewide rates. Elected in 1988 with the help of angry House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago), who successfully punished Democrat-turned-Republican Sam Panayotovich, Balanoff was in the forefront of most environmental legislation during his first session in Springfield. The articulate, energetic Balanoff credits his family for his progressive positions not only on the environment, but also on labor issues, health care and education. Balanoff's mother was a two-term Democratic state representative from the area from 1979 to 1982.

The past session, Balanoff sponsored legislation aimed at protecting the ozone layer and promoting recycling efforts. Those failed, and Thompson vetoed a bill that would have examined groundwater contamination in his district. The southeast side's pollution problems are so severe that the Lake Michigan Federation, an environmental organization concerned about lake water quality, speculates that leaching toxics from landfills and industrial sources from Balanoff's district are making their way to Lake Michigan via underground aquifers.

"Balanoff may come as close as anyone as being all around supportive [to environmental causes],'' said Virginia Scott, IEC executive director, during the conference. Illinois' leading environmentalists, like Scott and Kevin Greene of Citizens for a Better Environment, can usually count on a handful of other lawmakers to be strong environmental advocates. Rep. Peg McDonnell Breslin (D-75, Ottawa) and Sen. Patrick Welch (D-38, Peru) have led the solid waste management push. Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-26, Chicago) and Sen. Dawn dark Netsch (D-4, Chicago) continue to fight for toxic air pollution regulations and improvements in clean air. And Rep. Woody Bowman (D-4, Chicago) wins high marks from environmentalists for his consistent support of ill-fated "bottle bills. "Bill Kemp

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mate, there were several notable victories for environmentalists last session. Twelve million dollars will be raised for conservation over a five-year period through an increase in the state's real estate transfer tax. One-third of the $12 million will be used to acquire inventoried natural areas, the rest will be used by local park districts and governments to buy park lands. Conservation was just an offshoot of a legislative compromise last session, and most of the revenue generated from the increase in the real estate transfer tax will be placed in an affordable housing trust fund. An increase in the state's vehicle title fee will fund a new program to clean up hazardous tire dumps, and a recycling program for lead batteries was enacted. A new series of program grants for community curbside recycling programs also passed.

The "greening" of American public opinion is rooted in the growing realization that throwing away that one-liter polyethylene terephthalate (plastic) soft drink bottle has an adverse impact on the environment. Those clinging to the '' out of sight, out of mind'' faith are dwindling in numbers. "People are more aware that environmental problems are international in scope," says Kevin Greene, director of Citizens for a Better Environment, a Midwest environmental advocacy organization based in Chicago. There is a new environmental awareness that mankind is in this mess together, not as competing neighborhoods, states or nations. The acid rain falling on New York lakes and streams but linked to Midwest coal-fired utility plants does not abide by state boundaries. Likewise, the roots of global warming caused by the the greenhouse effect do not abide national borders. A scientific consensus is forming on the theory that so-called greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and nitrious oxide, and particulate matter are slowly heating the earth by trapping the sun's heat in the atmosphere. In conjunction with the trapping of solar heat is the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons. As the ozone layer is weakened, more solar radiation enters the earth's environment and adds to the greenhouse effect. When Dr. Carl Sagan, a strong environmental advocate, addressed the National Governors' Association August meeting in Chicago with Thompson in the audience he urged the governors to act on the issue of global warming: "Molecules don't have passports. Molecules released in one nation affect the temperature in other nations." He told the governors to "think globally, but act locally." Thompson is heading the governors' association task force on the greenhouse effect.

The record heat wave that engulfed the nation during the summer of 1988 "woke a lot of people up," says Greene. While that summer's intense heat and accompanying drought may not be traced to the phenomenon of global warming, Greene says many people who had lacked concern about environmental issues started paying attention when they saw the effect.

Dawson Lake just west of Bloomington in Moraine View State Park is still suffering from the summer of 1988 drought. The scientific community is debating whether that drought was a global warming warning or only a statistical blip in the weather. Photo by Paul Beaty

Although Greene and other state activists say the federal government must be the leader in global environment issues, they argue the Bush administration has dropped the ball. In spite of his "I am an environmentalist" pitch during the campaign, Bush has disappointed environmentalists over what they call his weak positions on the need to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals and other greenhouse gases. "Since Reagan, the federal government has abdicated many environmental protection responsibilities," says Greene, who argues that several states are now leading the way. "A lot of the innovative work is being done at the state level," he says. Greene points to several state laws passed within the last two years banning ozone-depleting chemicals as proof that the states are, for the time being, the testing ground for innovative environmental legislation.

Since the first Earth Day 20 years ago, environmentalists have been key players in landmark federal and state legislation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created soon after the 1970 Earth Day, and both the omnibus federal clean air and water acts were passed during the Nixon administration. In Illinois, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) was created during Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie's administration, the Pollution Control Board was formed in the mid-1970s, and the Department of Energy and Natural Resources was established in 1981. But with the birth of departments, agencies and boards has come disillusionment among those whom the myriad regulations and agencies were created to protect. "The current system is not working, and the public is becoming more and more frustrated," Greene says, adding, "Existing state and federal regulations and programs have become isolated from the public. Scientists, engineers and government officials haggle endlessly over what is what." The Pollution Control Board, which acts as interpreter of pollution laws, consistently draws the ire of environmental groups.

The structure of regulations and regulatory entities in Illinois is under examination by the Illinois Environmental Council, a coalition of 65 organizations around the state. The coalition will recommend an overhaul of the current state structure by the end of the 1990 session. That is only one of the key state environmental issues for the 1990s that the council is examining. Experts are studying solid waste management, development of alternative energy sources, innovative agricultural practices, contamination of groundwater, wetlands protection, Lake Michigan water quality, agricultural practices, air quality and other environmental areas. The coalition intends to release the studies as '' white papers,'' which it hopes will in turn lay the groundwork for an environmental agenda this decade.

Bill Kemp is a staff writer for Illinois Times in Springfield.

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