Environmental Sell-out

by Lorna Salzman

The article "Democracy for Hire", (The Ecologist, Sep/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 largesse supports them— congressional committee leaders, mass media, corporate givers and wealthy foundations anxious to give funds to only the most reputable (i.e. non-controversial 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 groups 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 corporations need 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 centre, where freight trains could unload cargo for local distribution by truck and barge, and vice versa. The Department spent over $300 million on upgrading the incoming rail line. Such a freight centre would contribute to cleaner air (the area nearby has the highest asthma rate in New York City), decreased truck traffic, decreased energy consumption, a revival of freight transport, local job creation, and a sound use of waterfront for water-dependent uses rather than luxury high-rise housing or "yuppie" commercial development.

But a politically, well-connected developer prevailed on the Department of Transportation to renege on its commitment to the freight centre 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 site.

The developer knew that it stood a better chance of getting public and media support for the project if it had "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 de-inking 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 with 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 a 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 extensive favourable 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 a "rail buff".

One omitted fact was that the freight centre had been the idea of the Department of Transportation, 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 centre). 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 in-depth environmental review and the plan for the industrial park and plant could be expedited.

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 centre. This report and several others were deliberately withheld from the public (and from the courts too, apparently).

Community, grassroots and regional environmental groups who do not want to appease corporations, media or 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 favourable 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 statement indicates that the speaker is either out of touch with reality or actively working to subvert any movement for real social change.

Source: The Ecologist, Vol. 26, No. 1, January/February 1996, pg. 39.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.