From Brown to Green 

It's a myth that environmental laws are job killers. In fact, the East Bay is home to many cleaned-up toxic sites that are now spurring the economy.

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According to Cohen, the truth is: "There is no evidence that countries with strong environmental regulations lose their competitive edge. If anything, countries have found that environmental regulation spurs technological innovation which produces opportunities for them to export pollution control technologies."


Looking back over the past half-century, Pellow contends that the absence of environmental regulation has been a "lose-lose-lose" scenario for the Bay Area and the nation. "It has contributed to greater public health and ecosystem risks vis-à-vis toxic chemicals, fewer protections for workers in those industries, and ultimately greater vulnerability to economic instability as those industries became more mobile, more global, and easily picked up to find greener pastures in other nations where regulations were even weaker." These unregulated industries left behind a toxic legacy of brownfields that act as deadweights on the local economies of many California cities today. Added to this multi-trillion-dollar problem of accumulated past pollution, economists like Cohen and Ambec warn that we risk further economic stagnation if we fall for the "jobs versus environment" myth.

While President Obama stumbled hard several times in his first term on exactly this issue, there are signs that his administration is increasingly willing to take a more enlightened path. During a January 10 visit to the EPA's headquarters, Obama told more than eight hundred staffers that he will "stand with them every inch of the way" during the year ahead. Calling industry and Republican demands for rollbacks of the most fundamental regulations governing power plants, farms, factories, and vehicle fleets a "false debate," Obama said: "We don't have to choose between dirty air and dirty water or a growing economy. We can make sure that we are doing right by our environment, and in fact putting people back to work all across America."

Backing up these words is a recent landmark regulation approved by the president. In December Obama enacted strict rules reducing mercury pollution from power plants against much opposition from owners of the nation's dirtiest coal plants. EPA economists project that these standards will actually create 46,000 short-term jobs, and 8,000 permanent positions in the utility industry. It was exactly the kind of smart regulation that, contrary to the myth, will both protect the environment and create jobs in a cleaner economy.

The bad news is that even if Obama has found the courage to push for stronger, smarter regulations, he may not be able to do so until after the elections. Many political analysts think the House of Representatives will remain in Republican control, and that the Senate may pass into the hands of Republicans next year.

The significance of this should be clear: Republicans are much more hostile to environmental regulations. In the 2012 election cycle, Republican candidates have taken the lion's share of campaign contributions from dirty industries seeking to avoid new regulations that would undermine their monopoly status and force them to redistribute profits away from executive bonuses and shareholder dividends.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 87 percent of coal company contributions have gone to Republican coffers. For chemical manufacturers, it's 78 percent — 88 percent for oil and gas companies. If these entrenched interests buy enough seats in the next Congress, perhaps the best Obama can offer in terms of environmental cleanup funding and regulations is nothing — leaving only a veto for polluter-friendly bills.

In California, the situation could be worse. Even though a majority of legislators say they favor cleanup, regulations, and the development of clean technologies, the state's budget crisis threatens to tank environmental initiatives. And the abolition of redevelopment agencies threatens to eliminate billions in local funds used to leverage even more federal money and private investment on contaminated properties.

Helen Bean of Emeryville knows better than anyone the impact this will have on cities where economic recovery absolutely depends on remediation. "Redevelopment agencies have provided a significant source of funding for brownfield remediation and, as of February 1, this funding will be terminated," she noted. "Without the focused efforts of the Emeryville Redevelopment Authority and its work to force partnerships with EPA and other funding entities, the former brownfield sites now occupied by parks, commercial centers, affordable and market-rate housing would likely still be fenced, abandoned, and un-utilized."

What's more, the budget crunch is undermining the state's regulators by default. "By terminating redevelopment agencies," Bean continued, "the state of California loses a very important tool in brownfield remediation — the Polanco Act." That legislation, as Bean explained, "allows redevelopment agencies to go after 'responsible parties' — those entities that actually polluted the ground and water — and require them to bear the costs of cleanup."

Thus, even without climate deniers and coal industry figureheads in office, California's budget crisis threatens to eliminate the tools, imperfect as they are, that can be of most use in seeking a green economic recovery.

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