He’s not the quickest calf in the pasture, so it took George W. Bush, and his White House handlers, a few months to grasp a basic rule of modern American electoral politics: Don’t look bad on the environment. After thirty-one years of Earth Days, the environment has become a mom-and-apple-pie issue; 68 percent of Americans say they support the goals of the green movement. Thus it was no surprise to see Bush’s poll numbers sliding, even among Republicans, as his Administration abandoned lower limits on arsenic in drinking water, the Kyoto Protocols on climate change and a host of other urgent measures.
Desperate to show that he favored clean air and water after all, Bush announced in the week before Earth Day a flurry of his own environmental initiatives. Most were more symbolic than substantive, but one–his promise to sign the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty in Stockholm on May 23–could promote real environmental progress. The POPs treaty, as it’s known, would limit or ban a “dirty dozen” of the world’s most toxic chemicals, including DDT, PCBs and the carcinogenic form of dioxin. True, Bush’s endorsement of the treaty was made easier by the acquiescence of the chemical industry, whose longstanding resistance softened after negotiators inserted sufficient wiggle room into the final text. The treaty still calls for a dioxin phaseout, for example, but only “wherever feasible”–a loophole corporate lawyers can exploit for years to come.
Nevertheless, Bush has a problem. The EPA is preparing to release a major study of dioxin’s health effects that, if uncensored, will surely increase pressure for dioxin’s rapid phaseout. Meanwhile, the chemical, paper and other dioxin-related industries are pressing his Administration to block the study’s release. If Bush heeds their call, he shields industry from costly new regulations but reinforces his antigreen reputation. And there’s a final irony here for Bush: Not only was the dioxin study begun by his father’s EPA; it was initiated at the behest of the very corporations now trying to bury it.
On January 23, 1991, the CEOs of four of America’s biggest paper companies had a meeting with William Reilly, the EPA Administrator under President George Bush the First. The executives, who represented Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, Champion International and Simpson Paper, were worried. As they reiterated in a follow-up letter to Reilly obtained by Greenpeace, their industry was facing “billions of dollars of needless toxic tort litigation” because of “needless public alarm” about dioxin, the chemical whose involvement in the Agent Orange and Love Canal scandals was giving it a reputation as one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.
The executives wanted Reilly’s help to fend off tighter regulations–what the CEOs called “interference by EPA in functioning marketplaces.” In 1985 the EPA had published a study of dioxin’s health effects that included a remarkably high estimate of its cancer risk–one of the highest risks, in fact, of any chemical that had ever been studied. The CEOs told Reilly they wanted the EPA to launch a new study, one taking account of “important new information” that just happened to suggest that dioxin was less dangerous than previously believed.
Reilly agreed, and the EPA began what has now become a ten-year study of dioxin’s health effects. In an interview this March, Dwain Winters, director of the EPA’s dioxin policy project, called the 3,200-page tome known as the Dioxin Reassessment “one of the strongest pieces of science the agency has ever done,” an example of “mega-science” that will “drive the EPA’s policies for the next ten years.” Some environmentalists liken the study’s potential impact to that of the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, which linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other health problems, and began the long, slow process of bringing the tobacco industry to heel.