Natural Resources Defense Council: Eco-logic or Eco-sell-out?

by Lorna Salzman & Bernardo Issel



Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. By the same token we ask: is the unexamined environmental movement capable of keeping the Earth alive? To those who would say that we are hurting the movement, we answer that it is the environment and its protectors that are being hurt. We embark upon this exploration not to weaken the environmental movement but to strengthen it, out of concern that efforts to address environmental problems and related societal ills have faltered due to a failure by many groups to examine and challenge the ways that our prevailing human society is organized and governed.

There is a view that what matters most is not the goal of your life but the means whereby you attain it. Most if not all environmental organizations probably share the vision of an eco-utopia in which humans, plants and animals live harmoniously on the planet. But the means whereby these groups believe this goal will be attained differ widely, creating a divide in the environmental movement that perhaps threatens the planet in more ways than we realize.

The range of difference is as significant as that between the Heritage Foundation and the Economic Policy Institute and was especially visible during the NAFTA debate but on scrutiny it manifests itself on many other issues, with a basic difference being the extent to which environmental organizations are willing to challenge the corporate sector and agenda. In fact, some sincerely believe that it is the "greening" of the corporations that will save the planet. Others, however, are convinced that it is the very entity and objectives of corporations that may have to be challenged, with the understanding that not all forms of enterprise may be equal in their environmental and social impact. It is probably evident, and even a cliche, that those environmental organizations with corporate representatives on their board, or which are funded by corporations, generally pursue a pro-corporate agenda of environmentalism, either directly or, more likely, by simply not dealing with issues related to corporate ventures. It is commonly accepted that big money has corrupted our political institutions. By the same token, we express the belief that major sectors of the environmental movement, as well as the broader non-profit sector, have been co-opted by vested interests, which deliberately act to deflect or smother progressive policies that challenge the corporate agenda or diminish their profits and freedom of action. While groups such as Environmental Defense (ED) and NRDC may argue that they avoid all corporate funding, they do not acknowledge that many of the foundations from which their support derives are themselves dependent upon corporate investments or sometimes overseen by corporate interests such as the New York Times Foundation. Some foundations that provide the mainstay of many organizations originally derived their funds from industrial activities with little environmental sensitivity; Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, was endowed with wealth from Sun Oil.

Virtually all foundations still maintain investments in corporations whose profits derive directly from destruction of the environment, many of which may support right-wing think tanks espousing anti-environmental agendas as well as policies for shredding the social safety-net. If environmental organizations were to truly challenge the corporate sector, this effort could severely affect the portfolios of these supporting foundations.

This is a conundrum which environmental organizations have avoided addressing. However, an overview of annual reports of environmental organizations and numerous conversations with people in the environmental community lead to the conclusion that foundations' largest grants go to those groups which are most accomodating to the corporate sector, and which in general do not address issues or embrace strategies that could threaten the political and economic status quo.

The corollary of this is that the funded groups will studiously avoid policies or projects that could endanger the funds they derive from these conservatively-oriented foundations or corporations. In effect, they have become handmaidens of politically and socially regressive forces --something eminently practical for these forces since now the corporations need not directly attack environmentalism publicly. Flush with corporate and foundation grants, these organizations now dominate the vision of environmentalism that the public is exposed to and the direction of the movement at large. This domination also insures that the voices of "moderation" (i.e. compromise) will prevail in the halls of Congress, the news rooms of the media, the conference rooms of technocrats and international institutions, the halls of academia and the laboratories of research institutions.

It may be difficult to challenge the direction of foundation funding, and corporate funding may always be with us; however there exists a large pool of funds and personal energy from the average citizens, many of whom dutifully support the large environmental groups through their $25 membership fee or with end-of-the-year donations. It is our hope that this project can contribute to the reshaping and strengthening of the environmental movement by pointing out the differences betweeen environmental organizations to the average citizen so that he or she may preferentially support those groups which best represent the interests of the environment and social justice. We believe the best interests of the environment lie in such a fully informed public.

The authors acknowledge that this report is by no means a complete review of the policies and programs of NRDC, which has admittedly some fine accomplishments behind it. But today's political climate is markedly different from that in which the environmental movement of the mid-20th century arose. With the rise of global problems and the spectre of distinctly anti-democratic transnational institutions threatening both our survival and our freedoms, it behooves us, especially those in positions of influence, to not merely acknowledge the intersections of environment and social justice but to incorporate them into our programs and realign our principles and policies within a broader ethical context, even when such realignment may disturb or threaten the established order or the group's funding sources.

We acknowledge the advice and help of many individuals in the preparation of this report. None of them are responsible for any errors of omissions however. We also welcome the input of the general public and especially of environmental activists in keeping us abreast of new developments in environmental policy so that our future reports on other organizations can be as accurate and complete as possible.

NAFTA and NRDC: Environmental Injustices Goes Global

"The North American Free Trade Agreement is wreaking havoc on the environment....." Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, (J. Commerce,12/6/96)

Several years ago the environmental community was splintered by support of the North American Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA). As President Clinton prepares to visit Mexico and urges Congress to grant him Fast Track Negotiating Authority for further trade deals, it is appropriate to reexamine the issue of NAFTA. Regrettably, a review of upcoming Congressional legislation in the 1997 Spring issue of NRDC's Amicus Journal did not consider fast-track legislation, and with good reason: such consideration would reflect badly upon NRDC's support of NAFTA.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with Environmental Defense, the National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund formed the Environmental Coalition for NAFTA. In justifying NAFTA, Katie McGintie, director of the President's Council for Environmental Quality, pointed out that "the leading environmental groups in the United State...joined the president in support of NAFTA". Those groups are certainly leaders in receipt of funds from corporations and foundations (themselves invested in corporations).

However, author Mark Dowie has pointed out that the environmental opposition to NAFTA, which formed the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC) of about 300 national and grassroots organizations, represented almost three times more people than the Environmental Coalition for NAFTA. The larger members of CTC included Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Action, the Humane Society, and Earth Island Institute, all organizations under little noticeable corporate influence. CTC's intent was to get labor and environmental agreements integrated within NAFTA so as to carry as much weight as the corporate rights embodied in NAFTA, but the environmental supporters ended up settling for side agreements.

The importance of NRDC's support for NAFTA has been pointed out by its executive director John Adams, who proudly stated: "We {environmentalists} were one of the 2 big prongs the administration had to fight... the other was labor. We broke the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA. After we established our position, Clinton only had labor to fight. We did him a big favor."

Mr. Adams justified support of NAFTA, stating that "the analysis that NRDC went through over NAFTA was significant...we have developed expertise in trade, and I'm unwilling to take the position that NRDC shouldn't use its own experts to decide on issues, and move and take risks". In Losing Ground, Dowie points out that while Adams claimed that a majority of NRDC's staff supported NAFTA, Dowie found that when he interviewed NRDC lawyers and staff, there was no support. This was publicly corroborated by Vernice Miller, the director of NRDC's Environmental Justice Initiative, who, when publicly questioned about NRDC's support for NAFTA at a conference, said: "But you need to know that those who sit in the highest-most rungs of policy-making often do not reflect the people who actually work at these organizations. ...Seventy percent of the staff at NRDC was vociferously opposed to NAFTA. We lost. It wasn't a fair fight, and it usually never is. We don't support it however, and we don't allow our technical resources to be used to defend it. I don't mean to be an apologist for NRDC because it does a whole host of things that are oppressive...the executive directors of these organizations...don't reflect the breadth and depth of the people working at these organizations".

Below is a review of some of the adverse effects in the areas of environment, labor and Mexican society that subsequently appeared after NAFTA's passage. While we believe that all of these issues are interconnected, they are organized separately below.

Environment. An extensive and comprehensive two-year review by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch in cooperation with Red Mexicana de Accion Frente al Libre Comercio (RMALC) revealed that two years afterwards, the promises made by NRDC and the other environmental supporters of NAFTA had failed to materialize. The side agreement intended to protect the environment now appears ineffective and unenforceable. The report pointed out that the concentration of border industry pollution increased while Mexico's economy collapsed, reducing the country's capacity to address environmental problems. Because of heightened industrial concentration in the border region, hazardous wastes generated and transported across the border have increased, as well as air and water pollution.

The Global Trade Watch report also finds fault with the institutions and resources created under NAFTA to address environmental concerns: the environmental side agreement on NAFTA created the tri-national Commission for Environmental Cooperation which has turned out to have "limited authority...limits on scope...no power to investigate independently...difficult to initiate process..cumbersome hurdles for economic sanctions ...and conflicts of interests". Furthermore, the CEC has been underbudgeted with its future funding in jeopardy. In the one case that CEC reviewed dealing with the deaths of over 20,000 birds in Mexico's Silva Reservoir, the resultant report underplayed the likely role of industrial hazards; furthermore, recommendations to prevent recurrence of the problem did not target industrial or sewage pollution. The CEC has no capacity to enforce its recommendations or to penalize violators of environmental laws. Not only did Global Trade Watch find the commission that oversees NAFTA to be weak, but it also points out problems as well with the institutions--the Border Environment Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank (NAD Bank)--created by NAFTA with the goal of coordinating and funding clean-up of the border and development of infrastructure. Apparently little of the $20 billion projected by the Sierra Club as necessary to adequately address border pollution problems has been allocated. Furthermore, the loans of the NAD Bank will be unaffordable to poor communities. The expected increase in truck traffic from NAFTA-related trade is leading to a push for the creating a NAFTA superhighway, an extension of Interstate 69 running from Canada to Mexico and transversing 10 states. Furthermore, the Clinton administration is under pressure to implement NAFTA's trucking provision which will allow trucks from Mexico to operate throughout the United States. There are serious concerns that older and heavier Mexican trucks operate far below U.S. safety and environmental standards. While NRDC negotiates in D.C. for stronger air quality standards, NAFTA, which it supported, threatens to increase the burden of air pollution in the U.S. Furthermore, as the Mexican truckers work for less pay than their American counterparts, there could be an adverse impact on wages and availability of work for U.S. truckers. Writing in Mother Jones, Esther Schrader described intensified competition amongst Mexican growers to supply the U.S. vegetable market. This has led to an increase of pesticides on produce and workers. Capitalized by U.S. agribusiness, growers are using pesticides that are illegal in the U.S and shipping the pesticide-laden foods to U.S markets. The author noted that deaths of Mexican farm workers have been associated with pesticides. "If the tremendous harms suffered by Mexican workers in the fields every day were taken up by the mass media, the U.S. government might feel compelled to exert pressure on its Mexican counterparts to enforce their own laws", commented the author. To this question we add: why are NRDC and the other environmental groups that supported NAFTA not championing this cause?

Information provided by the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico reveals the intent of International Paper and Hydro-Quebec International to involve themselves in massive forestry and petroleum projects in Chiapas. Implementation of these projects will require neutralization of the Zapatistas who have loudly condemned environmental destruction by multinational corporations. One has little reason to believe that NAFTA's "environmental side show" (i.e. side agreements) or NRDC will protect Chiapas from these rapacious corporations.

However, it is heartening to learn that in Chile, the Western Ancient Forest Campaign (WAFC) is joining Sara Larrain and the Chilean National Network for Ecological Action in opposing NAFTA expansion not just because of its impact on Chilean forests but because it would encourage a model of development that sacrifices forests everywhere for corporate interest while encouraging a "race to the bottom" (lowering environmental standards to the lowest common denominator) in all countries, according to Jim Jontz, director of WAFC.

Impact on the Mexican people. In spite of the heavy influx of foreign companies into the US-Mexico border maquiladora region, wages have declined while the cost of living has remained high. Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras has pointed out that while the Mexican government builds sewers, electrical hookups, and other infrastructural supports for the corporations, the workers in these plants are left to fend for themselves. While NRDC rebuilds its offices with eco-friendly building supplies such as compressed straw doors and paint without volatile organic chemicals, the workers of the maquiladora region construct housing for themselves from wooden pallets, chemical drums, and cardboard which they buy from the corporations that have invaded and polluted the USA-Mexico border, aided and abetted by NRDC via its support for NAFTA.

The cost of food in Mexico has increased from 70% to 305%, while the purchasing power of consumers has decreased by 29%. Each year 158,000 children die before their fifth birthday from malnutrition-related illness, and one out of every two Mexicans ingests less than the recommended daily caloric intake. Under the liberalized unprotected markets created by NAFTA, perhaps as many as 2.5 million rural households may find themselves displaced by an inability to compete with the increased influx of U.S.-produced corn and other grains. This displaced sector of society may, out of desperation, be forced to seek the exploitative jobs offered in the maquiladoras.

As part of signing onto NAFTA, Mexico was required to amend Article 27 of its constitution, thus ending the sanctity of the ejidos, communal pieces of land cultivated by Mexico's rural poor. These formerly common lands are now being privatized, contributing to severe rural dislocation and opening up these lands for greater exploitation by multinational corporations.

On Januar 1, 1994, the Zapatistas, a coalition of indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico carried out a rebellion sparked by NAFTA, which they regard as the death of indigenous people and the final burden of their long-held grievances against their government for its tolerance of exploitation of Chiapan people and resources. The demands of the Zapatistas for self-determination, land, immediate social and economic reforms in Chiapas and democratic reforms for all of Mexico have essentially gone unheeded. Recently, peace negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government fell through when Mexican President Zedillo rejected a compromise proposal addressing indigenous rights. The Mexican federal army has intensified repression and violence against the people of Chiapas; numerous human rights violations by the federal army have been reported by monitoring organizations. In fact, an Amnesty International Report pointed out that defenders of human rights have themselves become victims of human rights violations, which have significantly increased in number, including torture and extra-judicial execution. The most common victims of these abuses are Indian and peasant activists. (So much for the benefit of the highly hailed report on human rights and environmentalism generated by Human Rights Watch and NRDC in 1992.). Furthermore, U.S. military equipment has been used against the Zapatistas. Ironically, this aid is justified as serving the war on drugs, although it is most often simply turned against the Mexican people. Simultaneously, the heightened influx of goods shipped into the U.S. under NAFTA is blamed for facilitating entry of illegal drugs into the U.S. The National Commission for Democracy in Mexico which advocates in the U.S. on behalf of the Zapatistas has urged President Clinton to end military aid to Mexico and press the Mexican government to address peacefully the situation in Chiapas. Since then, other militant movements have appeared in three other states in Mexico. It remains to be seen whether NRDC and other NAFTA supporters will recognize their complicity in the political discord, poverty and social oppression generated by NAFTA and use their access to the White House and Congress to repent for their support of NAFTA.

Workers. Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner has shown that the threat of shifting operations to Mexico has been used by corporations to suppress organizing efforts by workers in the U.S. Public Citizen has pointed out that the 1993 U.S. trade surplus with Mexico of $3 billion dollars has been transformed into a $ 22 billion dollar deficit. Meanwhile, a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, "Workers Lose, CEOs Win" pointed to the rapidly falling purchasing power of Mexican workers' wages, and to the stagnant salaries and loss of U.S. jobs by employees of companies operating in the U.S. and Mexico, even as executive compensation rose in these companies. If workers have greater difficulty supporting themselves or have lost their jobs, it would seem less likely that they would be concerned with the environment while caught up in a more difficult struggle to survive.

The AFL-CIO, in a statement regarding Fast Track legislation, asserted that "no grant of fast track trade negotiating authority should be returned for Congressional consideration that does not include [within the core agreement] provisions for enforcement mechanisms for addressing worker rights, labor standards, and environmental protection". How is that the AFL-CIO appears to have greater concern for the environment than NRDC which has been silent on the Fast Track?

Just as the environmental side agreements have proved ineffective in addressing environmental problems, so has the labor side agreement, called the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), proved a failure. Mexico has failed to enforce its own laws to protect the basic rights of workers, including the right of free association. In a case reviewed by a committee formed in the U.S. under NAALC, it was determined that workers who attempted to organize themselves at a Sony subsidiary had been denied their basic labor rights and had been illegally dismissed from work. The determination by this toothless review committee carried no penalty for Sony nor any means to compensate the workers. Martha Ojeda poignantly describes these efforts to organize: "We wanted a union that was independent and represented our views, with leaders elected democratically. In April 1994 we had a peaceful demonstration outside the factory to protest against fraudulent elections for [the union]. The company brought in fire trucks with water cannons and police with clubs. They beat us badly and there were many injuries. After that we decided to go on strike". Their strike was suppressed by the police, and Sony sued the leaders of the independent union effort who were fired and blacklisted. Said Ojeda: "if those workers, or even their children, try and earn a few pesos selling on the streets, they are harassed by police". Later Martha Ojeda went to work in a U.S assembly plant which sent her back to Mexico to train workers to work on an assembly line which the company had moved to Mexico. She was aghast when she noted that the lines that had been moved to Mexico involved the more dangerous use of lead solder. Unlike the U.S., the Mexican workers were given no safety measures to deal with the exposure to lead. When she questioned the supervisors, they promised to provide the workers with a glass of milk each day to decrease absorption of lead. Numerous cases of violation of basic health and safety standards by U.S. firms operating in Mexico have been documented, such as a toxic gas leak in September 1994 at ALCOA, a leading NAFTA supporter, which hospitalized 179 workers there.

Although some could argue that some of these economic processes and environmental violations were occurring regardless of NAFTA, nonetheless the failure of the side agreements and subsequent labor,social, political and environmental failures that are occurring since NAFTA reflect poorly on the capacity of mainstream US environmental groups to address the challenges posed by current models of economic development. A common story regarding the Mexico-U.S.border region deals with rivers as polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste now as before, if not worse. Those observing the state of the environment in the U.S. should not be surprised. For even in our nation's capitol, raw sewage feeds into the Anacostia River. Every year the Environmental Working Group reports on release of pollutants into U.S. waterways. While the level of these pollutants may be less in the U.S. than abroad, the basic model of undervaluing our natural resources and inadequately addressing the organization of our society remains the same. The greatest danger to the global environment occurs when U.S. industries, kept in minimal check by our laws, export their industrial processes abroad. That these events should be countenanced or facilitated by NRDC and the other large prestigious environmental groups reflects the failure of environmental constituencies and group supporters to hold these organizations accountable and to work towards a wholesale reform of policy-making within these groups. A strong consensus exists that NAFTA was essentially a preliminary bill of rights for corporations, a bill of rights that was solidified the following year when in late 1994 the U.S. Congress approved the Uruguay round of the GATT agreement enshrining unencumbered international trade and creating the World Trade Organization (WTO). The approval of NAFTA by the large environmental groups dissipated the strength of progressive groups to challenge approval of GATT the following year. The first decision by the WTO ruled against clean air regulations of the U.S. which had barred dirty foreign gasoline from entering the U.S., forcing the U.S. to either revise its clean air laws or face trade sanctions. Mexico is now challenging the US "dolphin-safe" law that excludes sales of tuna caught by entrapping dolphins. These are only the first steps in a global downward slide of health, labor, and environmental standards. NRDC's report regarding the WTO was released in 1995, too late to be used to challenge WTO approval by Congress in 1994.

References: Journal of Commerce, 126; The Nation, 484, pp.514- 17; The Ecologist, D-GAP press release; E Magazine, Losing Ground, Mark Dowie; Auto Free Times; Amicus Journal (NRDC); Mother Jones; La Jornada.

NDC: Utilities' Best Friend, Consumers' Worst Enemy

"Ralph Cavanaugh never met a private utility he didn't like" - Daniel Berman, co-author, "Who Owns the Sun?", interviewed on WBAI-FM

Utility de-regulation may make some eyes glaze over but consumers and environmentalists will quickly wake up when they find out what it will mean for their pocketbooks, and for renewable energy and, equally important, who is working against them: not just the investor-owned utilities but some of the most prestigious environmental organizations in the USA. Of these, the Natural Resources Defense Council deserves special attention for its assiduous lobbying on behalf of utilities and against the public interest.

NRDC's energy program collaborates with one of the US' most polluting industries, electric utilities, and in so doing subverts the structural changes needed to advance environmental goals by enhancing the economic and political clout of the utilities, which can in turn block environmental and pro-consumer progress.

A major feature of NRDC's policy is to convince utilities to invest in energy efficiency. Since this works against the utility goal of selling more electricity, NRDC, at the utility's behest, promotes large economic "incentives", and the result is that electricity customers pay far more than the investment itself in order to overcome the utility's disinterest in energy efficiency in the first place. Many energy efficiency programs are "gold plated": high in overhead and marketing costs which are really only "Green" ploys covering up the environmental problems caused by utilities in the first place, from strip mining to acid rain to global warming. Thus, NRDC's "incentives" strategy provides a green veneer for the biggest polluters.

Until a few years ago NRDC wreaked its havoc mostly at the state level, working with utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the nation's largest private utility, with little in the way of savings to show for their efforts on energy efficiency. It is likely that only about 2% out of a total of 40% savings in energy has been achieved. Equally dismal is the fact that utilities, without any reprimand from NRDC, stiffly resist any cost-effective technology that could shift any control over energy resources to consumers, such as solar hot water heating and rooftop photovoltaics.

NRDC also has held press conferences and other media events with electric utilities, providing them with a public interest and environmental cover for their less well-known anti-environment and anti-consumer agenda. These have included Earth Day appearances with Edison Electric Institute, the national trade association of electric utilities, extolling that utility's environmental programs, and with PG&E, applauding its low emissions of greenhouse gases. Nowhere mentioned by NRDC were the emissions of PG&E's affiliate Mission Energy, which has used PG&E profits generated at home to build power plants abroad.

The total cost to the American public of what has been described as "one of the most amazing pieces of corporate brigandage in the history of the Republic" will be upwards of $500 billion, with this bank heist being legitimized by a few pennies' reduction in electric bills, and by the name of NRDC, whose main efforts nowadays go towards power-brokering rather than defending the public from despoilers. Pandering to consumers' readiness to accept promises of rate reduction, utilities are seeking credibility with the public by soliciting - and receiving - support from NRDC and others, in the hope that public scrutiny and criticism can be averted.

No one should think for a minute that utilities want de-regulation in order to do favors for their customers. Because of corporate energy mergers, massive debt from faulty, aging and unnecessary nuclear reactors, and above all the opportunity to dump the fiscal burden of their mistakes on consumers, utilities, not consumers, are pushing for de-regulation in the name of "freedom of choice" as a way of reducing operational costs and debt service, providing cheaper bulk costs to industrial customers, and of controlling future supplies, renewable or otherwise, on their own terms. Utility de-regulation therefore raises not only issues of consumer costs but of basic social and economic equity and citizen oversight of energy policy.

Because industrial energy consumers constantly demand greater rate relief, they have turned their attention to generating their own power through co-generation or purchasing power or fossil fuels from smaller independent producers. To bring along the small consumer and individual ratepayer, utility de-regulation legislation is touting "freedom of choice" and lower bills. But unfortunately, because the huge bills from past nuclear mistakes have yet to be paid, lower bills are strictly an illusion for small ratepayers, at least compared to the savings big industry stands to get: up to three times the reductions for small ratepayers unless the latter organize to demand a fair share.

The issue of "stranded costs" (someone compared this to the costs of rescuing a beached whale) is a central feature here. Because utilities will struggle to get rid of assets that raise their operation costs and reduce profits, the debt of nuclear plants, operational as well as defunct, will prevent them from competing for industrial customers with utilities not saddled with these debts, which are in the realm of half a trillion dollars. Thus, the utilities are demanding that, in exchange for de-regulation, they be allowed to pass "the albatross of the nukes" to the taxpayer. This bailout scheme will dwarf the savings and loan scandal. The Center for Energy & Environment says: "Allowing the utilities to recover stranded costs would give the greatest reward to those utilities that made the worst business decisions. What other industry can tap widows and orphans to undo $500 billion in past mistakes?"

The first bailout happened in California in 1996, dumping the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear disasters onto ratepayers to the tune of $28 billion by way of a hidden tax on residential bills, accompanied by an additional $5 billion in subsidies from taxpayer-supported bond issues. The utilities that benefitted, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric committed what is called "one of the greatest consumer robberies in California history". John Bryson, CEO of Southern California Edison, is one of NRDC's founders.

And who was up there next to the utilities to support this theft? NRDC, represented by Ralph Cavanaugh, a recipient of the conservative Teresa Heinz environmental foundation award of $250,000. Berman and O'Connor in their book state: "Cavanaugh and NRDC refuse to confront the utilities over existing nuclear power plants and they look the other way when the subsidiaries of the large utilities build fossil fuel plants elsewhere in the US and overseas". Berman is referring to dirty coal-fired plants Southern California Edison is building in Indonesia, China and Australia through its subsidiary, Mission Energy Co. Despite this fact, NRDC consistently ranks PGE and Southern California Edison among the "best" utilities in the US based solely on their carbon emissions in their own state. (15% of Southern California Edison's electricity is generated by a coal plant across the state line in Nevada, a plant that has one of the worst emissions records in the country, contributing to smoke in the Grand Canyon--coal strip-mined from the Navajo lands on the Black Mesa by Peabody Coal Co.).

Now let us turn our attention to Long Island, New York, where a combination of the local daily newspaper, Newsday (perpetually a pro-nuclear force), Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) officials, elected state officials, and the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) headed by mega-appeaser Richard Kessel, have proposed similar anti-consumer, pro-corporate bailouts regarding the never-operated Shoreham nuclear power plant in Wading River.

An analysis of the proposed LILCO bailout shows that LILCO will get the following favors, among others:

  • in 1989 LILCO was found guilty in Federal court of violations of RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act) for having lied to the NYS Public Service Commission in order to get higher utility rates and was fined $180 million, but under the new de-regulation deal it will have to pay only $83 million and will pocket the rest.
  • while the public will pay a 50% premium for use of the LILCO transmission and distribution system, LILCO will retain all future telecommunications revenues from the system.
  • LILCO will keep all its productive assets except for the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant...whose operational costs are THREE TIMES those of the other LILCO plants. Nine Mile Point gets "socialized" and the cheaper plants get privatized.
  • Nine Mile Point decommissioning will be paid for by the public, but LILCO gets to keep all the decommissioning funds that the public has paid to date in their electric bills.
  • the $2.1 billion in deferred federal income taxes that the public paid in their electric bills will be reduced by LILCO's regulatory tax asset, with the difference - about half a billion dollars -going to the PRIVATE LILCO INVESTORS.
  • the illusory rate reduction touted by LILCO as part of this deal will be based on rate hikes that LILCO ALREADY APPLIED FOR, not on today's rates.

Now enter NRDC. To get the environmentalists' sign-off on this pillage of public pocketbooks, the deal includes a $1 million bribe for non-profit ratepayer advocacy groups who want to get involved in the LIPA rate-setting process. To their credit, most groups didn't swallow the bait, even though it also includes $32 million earmarked for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. However, NRDC indicated its support for the renewable energy part of the deal and thus, by not opposing its more onerous parts, is once again, in effect, splitting the environmental community. The rest of the environmental community has refused to endorse the deal on principle, despite the money for renewable energy and energy efficiency. But because NRDC plays such a prominent role in energy policy deliberations, NRDC's non-opposition will in fact convey the impression that they favor the rest of the pact, and in turn this will further imply that NRDC represents the environmental community viewpoint, which is totally false. (One of the two other supporters of the pact was the Pace Energy Center, whose director is a close colleague of NRDC's energy person Ashok Gupta; Pace Law School has always had close ties to NRDC attorneys, some of whom teach or formerly taught there).

Richard Kessel of LIPA has so far hedged on what groups would be eligible for part of the $1 million for rate-setting participation---he alone will decide---but one thing is certain: no group opposing the pact will get any money, and the field will be left wide open for the participation of the only environmental group that has not opposed it: NRDC.

It should be noted that the bailout pact for LILCO is opposed by every major consumer and environmental organization on Long Island as well as by the Hauppage Industrial Association and virtually the entire Suffolk County legislature, which overrode the county executive almost unanimously to oppose the pact; evidentiary public hearings by the legislature's Energy & Environment Committee are being proposed.

Finally, despite promises of conservation and renewable energy programs, these will ultimately fail because of the nature of the bailout agreement, which will in effect subsidize NEWCO (the newly released assets of LILCO) with a Capacity Charge for fifteen years, thus keeping the cost of fossil plants low and renewable energy high and choking off renewable energy development indefinitely. This Capacity Charge can also be extended beyond the 15 years at the same terms.

NRDC's efforts in California and New York and elsewhere have seriously misled many environmentalists into thinking that a strategy of collaboration with utilities is a good thing. At the same time NRDC has steadfastly opposed any alternative means of promoting energy efficiency or renewable energy that might decrease or intrude upon the exclusive control of the electric utilities, such as promoting public control over local electric service through municipalization.

What this all shows is that Lemon Socialism is alive and well, and not only because of utility lobbying and political contributions. The role of NRDC in supporting, rationalizing and promoting one of the biggest consumer and environmental frauds of the century---and in undercutting the prospect of a safe, renewable democratically controlled energy supply system---needs to be exposed so that NRDC contributors and the environmental community in general can learn the full social, economic and environmental implications of NRDC policies and power-brokering.

Sources: Comprehensive Presentation to Long Island Power Authority by Bear, Stearns, March 19, 1997; CounterPunch 167; In Context, fall 1992; James Corrigan, statement to New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Energy, Corporations and Commissions, and Consumer Affairs and Protection, 477; Consumer Federation of America: Consumer Issue Paper on Electric Utility Restructuring, January 1997; The Agenda on Electricity, Washington Times, 237, by Wenonah Hauter; Congressional Quarterly, 257; Who Owns the Sun?, Daniel Berman & John O'Connor, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1996.

How NRDC Derailed New York City's Full Freight Access Program

If it were not for NRDC, NYC might be on its way to becoming once again a major rail freight center in the northeast, with rebuilt infrastructure, reduction in polluting diesel trucks, huge energy savings, cleaner air and recouping of the 700,000 jobs lost in the past 30 years due to its lack of a proper transportation infrastructure.

Instead, on the last site for a major freight facility, the Harlem River freight yards, sits yet another waste transfer station, one of sixty-four in the Bronx, which handles the waste trucked in by thousands of diesel trucks each week, which in turn exacerbates the poor health of local residents, who suffer the highest asthma rate in the US, with asthma hospitalizations at ten times the rest of the country.

The intervention of NRDC at the behest of a powerful local community development group, Banana Kelly, or rather its director Yolanda Rivera (a suburban Connecticut resident with connections to the developer responsible for the present debacle) was just another example of NRDC's predilection for power-brokering and for splitting communities, while actually ending up on the side of the polluters.

This story actually started out on a happy note, when NYS agencies prepared plans for a major freight center in the yard, to be connected by rehabilitated rail lines to upstate. Indeed, former Governor Mario Cuomo boasted in 1991 that development of the Harlem River Yards "would reaffirm New York's position of strength and potential in the world market". But unfortunately the evil deed was already done; the NYS Dept. of Transportation (DOT) had already sacrificed that potential and turned the yard over to Harlem River Yard Ventures, politically connected developers headed by Francesco Galesi (who donated to both political parties freely as well as to Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, now a candidate for NYC mayor); Galesi laid plans for an industrial park on the 96-acre site, relegating the rail plan to a minuscule role on 28 acres. (probably a non-existent role to be realistic).

All this took place even though both New York State and New York City had already invested nearly $200 million in a modern rail link intended to serve the site and connect the Hudson River rail line to the Port Morris line in the south Bronx. The plan was intended to reduce the 30,000 trucks that enter NYC each day bound for Long Island and other places in the northeast; two-thirds of these trucks pass through Manhattan. 90% of all freight moves by truck in NYC, compared to 41% in other cities. It was calculated that $100 million in shipping costs could be saved each year if the Harlem River Yards became an intermodal freight facility connecting rail and truck; to facilitate this connection the state initiated a $62 million investment to upgrade new tracks but when the contractor pulled out, the state began reconsidering the intermodal plan and looking at other potential uses.

A study was begun but was faulty from the start because it was mandated only to look at a maximum of five years' viability for any projected use. This was the first nail in the freight center coffin, and in 1989 the state gave the Galesi Group a 99-year lease. The group includes a developer, WMX (formerly Waste Management) and the Hunts Point Market Food Cooperative, and plans include the present waste transfer station, warehouses and perhaps some other facilities. It is one of those "other" facilities that brought NRDC into the picture.

Costs of the rail link have escalated to $175 million, three times the original link, in effect committing NYS and NYC to spending millions on tracks for a freight plan that has now been consigned to the dustbin. And that isn't all. The deal-making agency, Empire State Development Authority, created a sweetheart deal with Galesi that purported to "privatize" the development costs and save public agencies money. But a recent analysis by NYS Comptroller Carl McCall shows that Galesi will pay less than half market rent for the site and that site remediation costs will be paid by the state. Because the site is public land, there will be no property taxes. And the original figure cited by Galesi as his share of investment, $90 million, was eventually reduced mysteriously to $35 million---but to date he has spent only a bit over $4 million, mostly for a site fence and security. McCall calls the deal essentially a giveaway of public land.

A lawsuit initiated by the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition and the Business-Labor-Community Coalition and filed by transportation expert John McHugh, charged that because DOT consultant studies showed the industrial park would generate more pollution than the intermodal freight center, which was originally the plan for the site, the developers were required to compare the full environmental impact of the industrial park to that of the original freight center. The first round in court succeeded but the decision was reversed on appeal, a decision which McHugh claims essentially violates the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which requires a full analysis of all alternatives to the proposal. Since the intermodal freight center was originally the proposed alternative, this reversal seems totally unjustified (if not politically tainted).

But, one may ask, how did Galesi, Empire State Development Authority and NYS DOT get away with this? In retrospect the answers emerge clearly, and it is a tactic used by other developers frequently: get the "environmental community" on your side. Accordingly, Rivera of Banana Kelly, who worked for Galesi in recent years, contacted economist Allen Hershkowitz of NRDC and proposed that NRDC could get part of the Galesi site for a paper de-inking and recycling plant, clearly indicating a quid pro quo. NRDC jumped at the bait, seeing another chance to get more credits for supporting a project in a minority inner-city neighborhood, as part of its touted Environmental Justice program. So NRDC signed off on the industrial park deal and proceeded to put together a package of backers and technology providers for such a plant, which called itself the South Bronx Community Paper Company (SBCP). But the lawsuit intervened and soon all the backers dropped out. Although the developers purportedly offered 28 acres for the intermodal freight center, transportation planners emphatically insist that this is insufficient; such facilities require far more acreage, mostly for the backup space needed to store containers. In fact this raises an interesting point. The director of the Harlem River Yard Ventures, Anthony Riccio, co-authored a 1980 report to identify potential intermodal freight centers. One was the Penn Yards on the west side, now Donald Trump's Riverside South development, and the other was the Harlem River Yard. The report said that a bare minimum of 40 acres would be needed there. Riccio then went on to become head of the city's Office of Freight Development under Mayor Ed Koch and later commissioner of the NYC Dept. of Ports. But in 1990 he left city government and was hired as director for Harlem River Yard Ventures, reporting to Galesi (who illegally contributed too much money to Cuomo's re-election campaign and had to take it back; Galesi also gave money for the campaigns of Senator Alphonse D'Amato and Bronx Borough President Ferrer). Now Riccio defends the small acreage for the freight center as quite sufficient, asserting that NYC would always remain dependent upon trucks. But as things stand now, both the freight facility and the paper plant are extinct.

Now, back to NRDC, long a staunch defender of air quality and proponent of Federal regulation of small particulates (called PM10) which are still unregulated. NRDC did a study last year indicating that these particles, produced by power plants and diesel vehicles, cause over 4000 deaths each year in the NY area. Yet NRDC appears unconcerned over the fact that by supporting the Galesi industrial park it is giving the green light to thousands of additional trucks to enter the south Bronx community each week and contribute to further illness and deaths from small particulates in a community already plagued by emissions from a medical incinerator. More recently, a former US EPA official contested NRDC's claim that the industrial park would have "no adverse health impact", stating that even small increments of diesel emissions can cause increased cancer and deaths. And the consultant's study for the site, done on behalf of the SBCP now receded into history, states: "The proposed project would increase traffic volumes of heavy diesel-powered vehicles on streets near the project site and could therefore result in localized increases in PM10 levels".

Another peculiar coincidence is that NRDC was working with Rust International, a subsidiary of a company formerly called Waste Management but now called WMX Technologies---and WMX is being sued by NRDC for its plans for an incinerator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Rust has vast experience in building polluting incinerators, having built a notorious one in East Liverpool, Ohio, called by Greenpeace "easily the most notorious incinerator in the country".

One of the justifications used by Galesi and NYS as well as NRDC was the promise of over one thousand jobs, of which 300 would be permanent. But the freight center was expected to create over 5000 jobs, of which 2000 would be permanent ones.

The public subsidies of the Galesi venture are enormous and contradict the original intent of the state to insure privatized investment for the site. Because of the under-market rent, the exemption from property taxes, and the government capital investments including site remediation and the Oak Point rail link, Galesi is essentially being given an indirect operating subsidy of $43 million for the first ten years of the yard operation. But so far this yard operation is nothing more than a waste transfer station.

It should be noted that because of Trump's west side development, the Harlem River Yard was the only remaining site in NYC for a full freight access center. But numerous alternate sites are available in the south Bronx that are suitable for all the Galesi industrial park functions. Banana Kelly and NRDC themselves, in fact, negotiated originally for 10 acres on a 21-acre site at Oak Point Avenue, which is less than a mile up the river from the Harlem River yard. In addition, NYC is now proposing to rezone industrial lands across the city because it has a huge surplus of unused industrial parcels. Yet NRDC insists that the Harlem River Yard is the only available site for its (phantom) paper plant in NYC. Other sites include the southern end of the Hunts Point peninsula, and a parcel to the east of the Hunts Point sewage treatment plant on Hunts Point Ave. All of these sites have better access to the sewage plant, which has extra capacity, as well as rail access. And while Galesi is using the site for waste transfer, it has prohibited a competitor to its WMX associates from using the rail lines into the site and has in fact closed off the tracks so that only diesel trucks can now enter the site. Attorney McHugh claims that Banana Kelly only chose the Harlem River Yard site after his clients announced their intent to sue and after they had objected to the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The Galesi venture was not content with NRDC's seal of approval and went to great lengths to promote its views in the mass media, managing to get favorable treatment several times in the New York Times, who did no coverage of opposing views, and especially in the New Yorker, whose huge article managed to ridicule McHugh and make Rivera and Hershkowitz almost into public heroes.

In effect, NRDC split the community, colluded with private development interests, ignored the serious health impact of the industrial park diesel truck traffic, was unconcerned about the devious fiscal tricks used to help Galesi, was disinterested in the extensive public subsidies given to Galesi, stood against the Bronx community suffering from severe air pollution and asthma, and in addition seems unaware that their support for Galesi set a bad legal precedent in the courts for circumventing the State Environmental Quality Review Act, an Act which NRDC itself relies on extensively in other legal cases.

Sources: New York Times 55, 85; 96; Allee Rosen Fleming report for NRDC, 446; New York Press 446; New York Observer 275; City Limits, January 1994, October 1994; State of New York Office of the State Comptroller, report by NYS Dept. of Transportation - Staff Study: The Viability of the Oak Point Link and Harlem River Yards Projects (95-D-43), 27; City of New York, Office of the Comptroller of Policy Management, March 1993; Regional Plan Association comments to NYS DOT, 144; various communications from McHugh & Sherman, NYC; The New Yorker, 745.

Oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon: NRDC vs. the Indigenous Peoples

"Where are NRDC and the other major U.S. environmental groups; why are they not using their significant wealth and influence to demand accountability from Texaco for its destruction of the Ecuadorian Amazon?"--Judith Kimerling, personal communication, April 15, 1997

For twenty years the Ecuadorian government, its national oil company, Texaco and Conoco have been drilling for oil in its Oriente province in the Amazon basin and sending it abroad via a trans-Andes pipeline, mainly to the USA, to pay off its foreign debt. These operations, in which technicians earn up to $10,000 a month, take place on supposedly protected national preserves and lands belonging to indigenous peoples like the Huaorani Indians, and without exception have been among the worst environmental and social disasters committed in Latin America.

The 1.5 billion barrels of crude oil drilled to date have opened 2000 acres of rainforest to land settlers whose influx has created roads throughout preserves, clearing for agriculture, and logging. But the worst excesses have been committed against the Huaoranis who depend upon the Amazon tributaries and adjacent lands for drinking water, subsistence hunting, fishing and small-scale crops. The major pipeline has spilled nearly 17 million gallons of oil, mostly in the Oriente, with ten thousand additional gallons per week leaked from secondary lines, and the oil well production pits themselves generate over 4.3 million gallons of toxic wastes and chemicals each day, all of which is discharged into Amazonian streams, rivers and groundwater.

An NRDC-sponsored book, "Amazon Crude", by Judith Kimerling, documents this destruction with text and photos that are hair-raising. The introduction to this book, written by NRDC staff, calls for a moratorium on new wells, urging that they not proceed without indigenous consent and guarantees, and proposes a multimillion dollar cleanup fund to be provided by Texaco, with full compensation, including health care to the Huaorani, whose reliance on oil-polluted drinking water has caused epidemics of skin, digestive and neurological disease as well as disappearance of the wildlife they need to survive.

But despite this call, NRDC has taken no steps to carry out these proposals. Instead, it sent Robert Kennedy Jr. down to Ecuador to intervene in the process. Their way of intervening was to set up private meetings with Conoco and exclude the Huaorani entirely from the negotiations. NRDC proposed a $12 million fund for the Huaorani but at no time has it taken any action, legal or political, in Ecuador or in the US to stop the oil drilling and press for full cleanup and a renegotiation with the Indians. Kennedy's proposed fund was intended, as he put it, "..to ratchet themselves (Huaorani) into the corridors of power", even though he said they were "essentially inept at government". Asked what he would have done differently, he replied "Make sure that at that meeting we had with Conoco nobody was taking notes".

Eventually the Huoarani threw NRDC out. Since then NRDC has suppressed Kimerling's book and has shown no interest in joining a lawsuit against Texaco filed by the local Indian groups and joined by the Ecuadorian government which formerly sided with Texaco but switched sides. Although the issue of whether these groups can sue in a US court is yet to be decided, there is no indication that NRDC is considering getting involved. Meanwhile the oil drilling continues on Huaorani lands and within national preserves, exacerbating the ill health of the Huaoranis, the pollution of the Amazon tributaries, and the loss of indigenous wildlife. One has to seriously inquire into the meaning of NRDC's so-called Environmental Justice program, which apparently does not extend to third world or indigenous cultures.

Sources: Amazon Crude (Judith Kimerling, NRDC 1991); Village Voice (27); NY Press (137); Savages (Joe Kane, Knopf 1995).

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