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Cleaning Up Corporate Acts

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To the editor,

Harold Henderson's tortured article on the EPA's proposed tougher air quality standards ("Up in the Air," April 25) attempts to be thought-provoking but in general drums the same tired beat as most mainstream press stories, which ultimately foster the feelings of futility and helplessness many Americans harbor for changing their lives, their cities, and their country for the better.

Though Henderson attempts a show of objectivity by criticizing the lies and deceit of smokestack industry lobbyists and PR flacks, such as the Air Quality Standards Coalition and Citizens for a Sound Economy, he spends the majority of his article doing their bidding in challenging the science that went into the EPA's decision to strengthen particulate standards. Henderson says the science just isn't good enough; that more testing is required; and ultimately, the EPA should not move on tougher standards until it can show exactly how particulates "hurt people."

Should public policy be decided solely in the laboratory? Industry flacks (and Henderson) would like us to believe so. Why? Because the nature of the issues is so technical and layered with complexity that achieving conclusiveness is virtually impossible. In other words, the environmental health and safety issues at stake are so complex and vast that industry lobbyists will always find wiggle room to challenge scientific findings that don't suit their purposes. And true to form, industry has done just that in the face of an independent science advisory board agreeing with EPA recommendations (made after an examination of 5,000 scientific studies) that new fine-particulate standards should be developed. So while industry is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into grinding down EPA's efforts, thousands of Americans will continue to suffer and even die from respiratory illnesses related to particulate matter. It's not conclusive, Mr. Henderson, but the evidence is pretty damn strong.

But so what, scientific conclusiveness is still necessary, Henderson contends, because the costs of implementation might outweigh the benefits, and may even cause more harm. Again, it's the same oily drivel that spews out of the mouths of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. It's called cost-benefit analysis (a term Henderson took great pains to avoid) and it's a tool industry flacks have been peddling for years (and with great sums of money) in hopes of escaping the financial responsibility of cleaning up their act. If we are to follow Henderson's (and the corporate lobbyists') reasoning to its logical conclusion, corporations would virtually become untouchable (as if they aren't now). Whether it be under the pressures of tougher emission standards, wage demands, safety standards, etc, corporations are working to beat back regulation with threats of relocating from a particular municipality, state, or even the country (think NAFTA), effectively whipsawing the labor force, municipalities, and the federal government into submission. In short, it's a race to the bottom. And oh, by the way, Henderson is telling us the EPA is setting standards based on questionable science, but with cost-benefit analysis, is he not suggesting it base its standards on questionable accounting?

But if in the end the real problem lies, as commissioner of environment Henry Henderson (any relation?) suggests and Harold Henderson ultimately seems to conclude, in the way in which the EPA implements the Clean Air Act (because it puts the burden of costs disproportionately on industries in established cities and suburbs) and not on the inconclusive science, then why didn't Henderson write an article exploring this issue instead of wasting paragraph after paragraph regurgitating industry propaganda about the science? That would have been a truly profound and interesting exploration.

Yes, Commissioner Henderson has a point when he claims there is a real need for "a coherent federal approach" to environmental issues. But this is nothing new to environmentalists. They, along with community groups (such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology), have been fighting for such a comprehensive governmental approach for years. To little avail. Which gets us to the heart of the problem: the cultural, institutional, governmental, and judicial privileging of the so-called "rights" of corporations over those of average citizens, where the right of corporations to do as they wish, even in the face of mounting evidence of their harmful actions, goes unchallenged.

What kind of public policy approach is this? One that's guided by corporate bribery in the guise of PACs and soft money contributions, for one. Two, in the guise of industry professionals receiving high-level federal agency appointments, where they can further the appetites of hungry and amoral corporations. And three, in the Supreme Court ruling in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) that handed rights of natural persons to corporate entities, effectively ending the ability of American citizens, and the municipalities they reside in (Chicago for example), to curtail corporate abuses, thereafter sanctioning the corporate-citizen: corporate-employee relationship as one wherein the people serve the corporation and not the other way around.

This corporate paradigm is now so pervasive--and why not, corporations own America's media--that supposed alternative reporters like Henderson can't even think outside the corporate box. So we're left with a pollution of a different sort, and that really stinks.

Greg West

Wicker Park

Harold Henderson replies:

Henry Henderson is not related to me, and vice versa.

In announcing its proposal, EPA said it had reviewed "86 PM-related human-health studies," not 5,000. Perhaps Mr. West should let them know where to find the other 4,914.

Mr. West speaks in a long and honorable tradition when he urges us not to bow down before corporate press releases. I agree. But the fact that corporations often tell lies does not mean that everything they say is false.

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