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.


During a Republican presidential primary debate last June, Michele Bachmann lit into the Environmental Protection Agency, recommending it be renamed the "job-killing organization of America." Her fellow contenders nodded in agreement, each explaining how shutting down the EPA, or at least instituting a moratorium on regulations, would be a priority in their White House.

The GOP's desire to kill America's chief environmental regulator hasn't just been grist for the bizarre sideshow that is the Republican Party's presidential primary. Over the past year, Republicans in Congress — in actual positions of power — have succeeded in massively defunding the EPA. In March, no less than nineteen riders were floated on the floor of the House of Representatives to cut the EPA's budget. Fifteen Republican senators even proposed deleting the EPA as a cabinet-level agency. The harshest of these legislative bombs were diffused, but the cuts that prevailed added up to the largest single year drop in EPA funding since 1981 when President Reagan ("Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do") began his unprecedented assault on the greens.

Republicans by no means have a monopoly on the "job killer" trope. Moderate, so called-Blue Dog Democratic senators like Jay Rockefeller and Ben Nelson, who hail from states with huge corporate energy interests, have co-sponsored legislation to ditch specific EPA standards. Even President Obama recently reinforced the mythology that environmental regulations are counterproductive to economic development, saying in September that his decision to rescind ozone air-quality standards was essential to the nation's economic recovery. Both parties also are seriously pursuing environmental deregulation of industry, and cuts to the nation's major cleanup programs.

The problem with all of this, however, is that California's economy is now crucially dependent on environmental regulation and remediation. This is especially true in cities where decades of industrial pollution have created an environment not only toxic to human health, but also economic investment.

In fact, cleaning up toxic sites has become a fundamental driver of the Bay Area's economy. As a result, cutting the EPA's budget, and possibly reducing funds for the state agency responsible for partnering in cleanup, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), will stall job creation and condemn huge swaths of urban California as economic dead zones.

But the fallacy that environmental laws kill jobs doesn't end there. According to economists who study the impact of regulation on markets, California's economy will likely add more jobs and develop new vibrant sectors of activity much faster if politicians embrace ambitious environmental goals. According to this emerging school of thought, environmental regulations aren't only pivotal for human health and environmental quality, they stimulate innovation, and innovation is the key to California's economy.

To understand why environmental cleanup is so essential, it's helpful to go back a few decades and look at California's previous economic booms. Following World War II, the Bay Area became an epicenter of manufacturing. Everything from chemicals and aircraft parts to semiconductors and food were produced in sprawling factories built atop what just a few years before had been orchards and pastures. This industrial manufacturing economy brought enormous growth leading to mass employment and expanding tax dollars for state and local governments. Cities grew, easterners migrated west, and much of the new workforce prospered through the 1950s and 1960s, decades that enshrined California's "Golden State" image.

But the industrial boom had many dark sides. Among them was pollution. Lacking federal and state regulations, major corporations and the military dumped poisonous wastes into waterways, buried them on-site, and spewed toxins into the air where they would eventually settle onto surrounding communities.

"Until quite recently, there were few if any federal laws offering guidelines for governments attempting to regulate industries that consumed, produced, and disposed of toxic materials," explained David Pellow, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. "There were few resources for citizens seeking to protect the environmental health of their communities, and for industries looking for guidance on these matters." Pellow, who has closely studied the toxic legacy of past industries in California (see his book, The Silicon Valley of Dreams), says that it was only a matter of time before the toll of this pollution negatively affected the health of Californians, and the productivity of the state.

"The high-tech industry's health toll is readily observable in the biographies of countless workers who have been disabled, poisoned, and who have experienced premature death as a result of exposure to toxins," Pellow continued, adding that these health impacts have been a drag on the Bay Area economy. "These individuals who got sick frequently were the financial bedrock for their families, and those families were then economically disabled, causing further ripple effects across entire communities." Added to this are health-care costs, borne largely by the public through Medicaid and other programs.

It wasn't until the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 that the nation's political debates began to focus on the environmental damage caused by chemical contamination. It took eight more years before Congress established the EPA. The California Environmental Quality Act was passed the same year, in 1970, but California's Environmental Protection Agency would not be founded until 1991.

Moreover, between 1970 and today, the pace of environmental regulations and remediation programs was slow. Some say it was too piecemeal, or too late to prevent much of the economic harm that would befall exposed communities and the economy as a whole. The damage, in large part, had been done.

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