Clinton's Toxic Fruit Cocktail

WASHINGTON, D.C.--With the presidential campaign fast approaching and Florida and California being the pivotal battlegrounds, Bill Clinton is doing everything imaginable to ingratiate himself with politicians in both states. During the arm-twisting for NAFTA votes two years ago, the Clinton administration won over a sizable block of Florida House supporters by promising to permit the continued use of a controversial and highly toxic pesticide called methyl bromide on fruits and vegetables. Along with CFCs, methyl bromide is a key contributor in destroying the protective ozone layer above the earth. It is also the vital pest fumigant used by tomato farmers in Florida and strawberry farmers in California. Methyl bromide--a soil-sterilant, post-harvest fumigant--is responsible for at least 10 per cent of worldwide ozone depletion. It causes respiratory failure and has been linked to more occupational deaths in California than all organophosphate insecticides combined. This lethal substance is also a neurotoxin and suspected human carcinogen. Under the Montreal Protocol of 1987, an international agreement designed to get rid of ozone-destroying chemicals, ozone depleters such as CFCs and methyl bromide were to be phased out by January 1, 2000. In addition, the Bush administration agreed to freeze methyl bromide production at 1991 levels. But in order to pass NAFTA, Clinton needed to secure the votes of 20-odd House members from Florida, and so promised to allow the pesticide to remain in use. It probably didn't hurt the pro-methyl bromide cause that Ethyl and Great Lakes, the two companies that manufacture the pesticide, have large installations in Arkansas and long-standing ties to Clinton. While he was governor, Clinton, along with Arkansas Democratic senator David Pryor and former congressman Beryl Anthony, supported both companies when they faced stiff competition from an Israeli firm and sought protective relief from the U.S.-Israeli free-trade act. Today, Pryor remains a major Clinton ally on Capitol Hill, and Anthony, who left Congress amid the House banking scandal, is a Washington lobbyist. Methyl bromide accounts for just a small portion of either company's total sales. But since it is produced as a by-product of other chemical formulations, the income it generates is all profit. More importantly, if this chemical were not considered a pesticide, it would be classified as toxic waste, requiring considerable expense to destroy it. In a November 1993 letter to the executive vice president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor wrote, "I have spoken with [Agriculture] Secretary Mike Espy, and I want to assure you that the administration recognizes the potential harm to your industry and others unless a satisfactory solution is found, and the President has asked me to assure you that this effort will be given a very high priority." Kantor continued: "Under the proposed EPA regulations now being finalized for methyl bromide, there will not be any restriction on the manufacture or use until the year 2000, by which time we hope to have satisfactory alternatives. The President wants to assure you that if no satisfactory alternative is found, the administration will consider appropriate action to guarantee that our agricultural producers are not left without commercially viable means" to continue use of the fumigant. Even before Kantor made his paper deal with the Florida growers, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy had reassured growers the chemical would remain in use. It was recently revealed that one of the big companies, Sun-Diamond, had helped to finance Espy's brother's failed campaign for Congress in hopes the then Secretary of Agriculture would side with the firm in keeping methyl bromide in use. Of course, with this administration, a deal is not always a deal. Kantor's office claimed it never sent the letter, although the copies circulating in Washington bear his office's logo and fax number. The Florida growers immediately accused Clinton of a double cross. The issue died until last year when the Republicans won control of Congress and launched a full-scale attack on the environment. They set out to completely undo provisions in the Clean Air Act that pertained to ozone depletion, hence freeing up the full use of methyl bromide. House Republicans set out to gut existing legislation with three new laws, the broadest one seeking to dismantle existing environmental regulations altogether, and the others attempting to cut into regulations piece by piece. The Republicans argue that fears over ozone depletion are a hysterical and unsupported cry "from an environmental Chicken Little," which already has caused Americans to spend undue amounts of money to remove other supposed hazards, asbestos, for example. As Texas congressman Tom DeLay, the Republican whip, claimed, his training as a scientist (he is, in fact, a pest exterminator) showed him that the ozone problem was caused by shifts in the climate, and that he was deeply suspicious of scientific studies on the subject since so many of them were rigged and untrustworthy. The Clinton administration, stirred into action by the Republican juggernaut, saw a way to recapture the support lost by the Kantor recantment. In August, staff members of Mary D. Nichols, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for air and radiation, phoned environmentalists in an effort to gain an agreement between environmentalists and produce growers on certain special uses that could basically exempt methyl bromide from the Clean Air Act ban. The EPA staffers told environmentalists they must get an agreement now to head off the House legislation presented by Congressman Dan Miller, assistant majority whip. At the same time, Nichols appeared before a House subcommittee saying, "(The administration) fully recognizes that there is no guarantee that acceptable alternatives will be available for all uses of methyl bromide prior to 2001. We believe that having a safety valve--allowing continued production for specified essential uses where no alternatives exist--is an important part of this process." She added, "To this end, we are ready to work with stakeholders to craft an appropriate safety valve that would permit applications for 'essential use' exemptions if they are needed as the phaseout deadline approaches." In September, The Fresno Bee reported that a group of California growers who met with Clinton heard the president say he would support a delay of the chemical's phaseout plan if international competitors were still using it and no alternative existed. "The methyl bromide (issue) was the one strong commitment that he made" at the meeting, the Bee reported Congressman Cal Dooley, a Democrat, as saying. Like so much in the Clinton administration, this story is fraught with botched double crosses, half-truths, and confusion. But it is clear enough that by forcing through the NAFTA trade agreement, Clinton took a major step toward reorganizing agriculture, hastening the process of moving chemical farming out of the United States to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America where restrictions on pesticides and other chemicals either don't exist or are far less stringent than they are in the U.S. In the case of methyl bromide, that's what the big tomato farmers, who already rotate their harvests from one part of the world to the other, depending on the climate, will do in the future. Florida farmers already have set up joint operations with Mexicans for tomato farming to take advantage of lower costs, especially labor costs. Those smaller farmers who can't afford to make the move will gradually go out of business. NAFTA just hastens the departure of big farming south of the border, freeing up expensive farmland for more urban sprawl. Everyone knows it's a disaster for the family farm and jobs that depended on it, but it is also a disaster for urban planning and is sure to wreak havoc with the environment in places like the great Central Valley of California. Having set this migration in motion, Clinton now wants to blame the effects of NAFTA on the Clean Air Act. The strictures of the environmental legislation, his administration contends, are forcing farms out of business or south of the border. Now he promises to lure the growers back by alleviating the methyl bromide ban. At the same time, Clinton has now attacked environmentalists saying that if they don't compromise on methyl bromide, it will be their fault that farming leaves for Mexico. It's just one more slick move in Clinton's all-out campaign to win presidential votes. For details on what is becoming a big business in ozone depleting chemicals, see Ozone Action's "Deadly Complacency" study or call 202-234-2847.

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