Keith Schneider

West Virginia bets big on plastics — and the backing of Trump's administration

This story was co-published with the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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Investigation shows authorities knew the Carr Wildfire could happen and failed to prevent it

On the afternoon of July 23, a tire on a recreational trailer blew apart on the pavement of State Route 299 about 15 miles northwest of Redding, California. The couple towing the Grey Wolf Select trailer couldn’t immediately pull it out of traffic. As they dragged it to a safe turnout, sparks arced from the tire’s steel rim. Three reached the nearby grass and shrubs; two along the highway’s south shoulder, the third on the north. Each of the sparks ignited what at first seemed like commonplace brush fires.

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Pact With the Devil: A New Fossil Fuel Energy Boom May Be Our Ultimate Undoing

The most direct path to America’s newest big oil and gas fields is U.S. Highway 12, two lanes of blacktop that unfold from Grays Harbor in Washington State and head east across the top of the country to Detroit.

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Climate Change Ground Zero: Drought and Fires Devastate Australia

On March 28, for the first time in anybody's memory, the floodlights surrounding the soaring white shells of the Sydney Opera House were temporarily extinguished, part of Earth Hour, an international event spanning 88 countries and 24 time zones to prompt world leaders to take action on global warming.

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Perrier vs. the People

Until two years ago, the 40,550 generally well-behaved Midwesterners of Mecosta County, Mich., regularly attended church, sent their children off to school on yellow buses and never for a moment worried that their clean, freshwater supply would ever run dry. Mecosta County, after all, sits near the center of Michigan's lower peninsula, which itself sits at the center of the largest supply of freshwater on Earth.

Then came the water war.

On Dec. 6, 2000, the Perrier Group of America, a subsidiary of Swiss-based Nestle, the world's largest food company, applied to the local health authorities for permission to drill two water wells on an 800-acre private hunting preserve in the county's southern reaches. The company's purpose: to establish a source for a new bottling plant to ship its popular Ice Mountain brand of spring water throughout the Upper Midwest.

Five weeks later the permits were granted. The approvals touched off a stunningly fierce debate about who controls Michigan's underground reservoirs of freshwater -- water so abundant and pure that half of the state's 9.9 million residents draw it straight from the ground. Although Perrier paid handsomely to smooth the way in Michigan -- it hired a public affairs group to massage the media and a respected political consultant to guide needed permits through the regulatory agencies -- its arrival in Mecosta County has been greeted with lawsuits, legislative proposals to strengthen the government's authority to manage water and political unrest so significant that it has divided the state Republican Party and is influencing the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign. Indeed, the fight over freshwater may be the most significant environmental issue in the country when it comes to affecting how voters will behave at the polls come November.

Perhaps most important, Perrier's presence has generated new public awareness that free trade, globalization, climate change, population expansion and other worldwide mega-trends are turning the Great Lakes into ever more prominent targets for resource exploitation. On the 30th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, the granddaddy of all water protection statutes, Mecosta County is suddenly the epicenter of a new public reckoning over the security of the Great Lakes -- where 20 percent of the world's surface freshwater is stored -- and the underground aquifers that supply them. In a world where clean, freshwater is becoming ever more scarce, the fate of Perrier in Mecosta County will have legal, political and environmental ramifications for every Great Lakes state and far beyond.

Water in the Court

The Perrier case is headed to the halls of justice next year -- but long before it gets there, it will be tried by the public in the courtroom of Michigan's fast-approaching gubernatorial election. Both major party candidates have publicly and repeatedly expressed their resolve to modernize state water policy to block other multinational corporations from privatizing, bottling and selling hundreds of millions of gallons of Michigan's groundwater annually across state lines. That both candidates are voicing those sentiments -- which are shared by the majority of state residents, according to opinion polls -- is due in large measure to the work of a group of Mecosta County residents who call themselves Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.

Thirteen months ago, MCWC filed a lawsuit arguing that water, like air, is a common resource that is held in public trust and should be managed for the public benefit. If commercial activity such as Nestle's bottling plant is sanctioned by the state, the group asserts, Michigan could become the target of massive diversions of freshwater to thirsty destinations on this continent and overseas. By defining and promoting water as merchandise, the argument continues, the company is vastly increasing the vulnerability of Great Lakes water to development, exploitation and overuse.

The Perrier Group, which recently changed its name to Nestlés Waters of America, says such arguments have no basis in Michigan law. The company's lawyers contend that there is no difference between what Nestles Waters is doing and what dozens of other companies do when they pump groundwater to make soft drinks, brew beer, prepare fruits and vegetables for packing, or any of countless other commercial activities.

Moreover, say executives, the company's extensive groundwater-monitoring program in Mecosta County shows that its withdrawal of as much as 576,000 gallons per day is "insignificant" in an underground reservoir that holds billions of gallons. According to scientists working for the company, the disappearance of more than 210 million gallons per year will go virtually unnoticed in a Great Lakes basin containing 6 quadrillion gallons, or about 3 billion times as much. Far from hurting the region, the company argues, the bottling project will create up to 200 jobs and be an economic boon.

In interviews, legal authorities generally agreed that the Michigan citizens group will face an uphill struggle to prove that Nestle's use of Mecosta's groundwater is "unreasonable" under state law. Michigan's water policy -- what there is of it -- is based on the 19th-century belief in an unlimited abundance of freshwater in the state. Thus state law essentially says that anybody can take as much water as they want for free, as long as doing so doesn't harm anyone else.

Whether or not it is successful, the court challenge against Nestle has already helped Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation close in on one of its primary goals: exposing the weakness of the state's water statutes and replacing them with rational water laws fit for the 21st century. The work the citizens group is doing to prepare for its day in court has steadily penetrated the public consciousness and became a political issue with an uncommonly long reach in and beyond Michigan.

Nestle Crunch

For the people of Michigan, the Nestles Waters case is doubly galling. It's bad enough that a rich and powerful outsider plans to snatch up the state's water for free and sell it for a fortune; it is worse that the company was encouraged by a consummate insider -- Michigan's Republican governor, John Engler. The Engler administration has awarded Nestle nearly $10 million in local property and state education tax abatements, job training and infrastructure grants to take Michigan's water. It's as though the king of Saudi Arabia allowed Exxon to tap his oil fields for free -- only freshwater is more valuable than oil. At the local convenience store, a gallon of bottled water costs more than $8, six times the price of a gallon of gasoline.

The subsidies, which MCWC disclosed, helped to spur three separate citizen blockades since April at the company's new bottling plant in Stanwood. They also added Mecosta County to the growing number of global hot spots in the worldwide grassroots campaign to block multinational corporations from privatizing water.

All that activity elevated an environmental dispute into a prominent campaign issue for Michigan's gubernatorial candidates. Not even Engler's closest allies in the Republican party have defended the subsidies or Nestle's entrance into Michigan. In fact, Republican leaders, who spent more than a decade preaching the benefits of the free market and deregulation, have done just the opposite. Lieutenant Gov. Dick Posthumus, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has proposed a "Marshall Plan" to protect the Great Lakes. The plan includes new water legislation and a much more activist state government to prevent such diversions "now or ever."

Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic candidate who is leading by 12 percentage points according to a recent poll, has offered a more specific proposal. She promised, if elected, to develop a new comprehensive water law that bases decisions about water use on how withdrawals affect the environment. She told a Grand Rapids audience earlier this year, "I will lead the fight to enact a state water-protection statute that will base decisions on future water use on what is right for the ecosystem and therefore the people of Michigan in the long run."

In no other Midwest state, and perhaps none nationwide, has an environmental issue gained such electoral prominence during this election cycle. "What happened with that bottling plant has steadily grown into a major issue in Michigan that is not only about the environment, but also about how secure people feel about their future here," said Andy Buchsbaum, a lawyer and director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center in Ann Arbor.

There is no doubt that Nestles Waters anticipated that its entry into Mecosta County would stir controversy. Periodic shortages of water around its plants in Florida and Texas had already sparked citizen protests and greater state scrutiny. Just before arriving in Michigan, Nestles Waters had abandoned a proposal to build its new Midwest bottling plant in Wisconsin after a bruising fight with local residents.

But whatever Michigan might bring the company in terms of corporate headaches, the potential profits were worth the fuss. Nestles Waters, the 500-pound-gorilla of the American bottled water industry, bottles the Ice Mountain brand in the Midwest, Poland Springs in the East, and 13 other brands in 75 bottling plants nationwide. The company controls a third of the $6.8 billion national bottled water market, which has grown 18.4 percent since 2000, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based research and consulting firm.

The question now is whether Nestle is the first in a long line of multinational marketers that will dip their straws in Michigan's pure water for free -- or potentially the last. The Michigan citizens group is trying to oust the company; the gubernatorial candidates say they are ready to pass legislation to make sure other businesses don't follow Nestle's lead. And state Sen. Ken Sikkema, a Republican from Grandville who began his political career far enough to the right that he authored a Michigan law to limit government's authority to oversee natural resources, found in the Nestles Water case an opportunity to track back to the moderate middle. Sikkema, who chaired a legislative task force on the Great Lakes last year, introduced legislation this year that would give local and state government officials authority and resources to vastly step up their power to regulate water.

One of Sikkema's proposals would even require communities to confirm that adequate supplies of groundwater were available for future needs before large water withdrawals could be considered. It is the first time Michigan has proposed linking a community's economic development plan with its water supply, and it represents a decisive step forward in the state's thinking about how to improve the economy and protect the environment.

Michigan is blessed with such abundant natural resources that a 19th-century culture of use and abuse has persisted in spite of a sorry history of home-grown environmental disasters. But Nestle's venture into the state seems to have jarred people here. It sparked a new kind of discussion about the importance of conserving the essential stuff of life, and the role of the state in doing so. Even militants on the right understand that without adequate water-supply protections and clear rules for withdrawals and exports, the state leaves itself open to marketing schemes from across the globe, and potential shortages and environmental damage at home. For the first time in a Michigan gubernatorial election, candidates from both major parties have seized on the security of the state's freshwater to introduce the idea that abundance is illusory and there really are limits to growth.

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to Grist, the New York Times and the Detroit Free Press, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, which he cofounded in 1995.

Land of the Oil Free? Redefining the American Way of Life

It took only a quick glance at the guts of the blasted, black-charred remains of the World Trade Center to immediately agree with President Bush that the Sept. 11 attacks were a direct strike at what he called "the American way of life."

Bush's assessment, meant to stir public passion and lay the political foundation for a sustained military campaign to eradicate global terrorism, has also had another, quite different effect. Spurred by the president's regular reference, the American way of life is suddenly the focus of new public scrutiny and a substantive national discussion about who we are and how we live.

With so many Americans dead on their own soil, the terrorist attack in effect opened a new chapter in a decades-old skirmish about the real meaning of national security and the consequences of a way of life based on the profligate use of oil and other natural resources.

The debate, which has taken on unprecedented urgency, could dramatically reshape American politics and economics, perhaps as soon as the 2002 mid-term election. Moreover, say theorists on all sides of the dispute, never before has the environmental community had the opportunity to play such an influential role in deciding the outcome. The reason: To the extent the horrendous attacks were prompted by America's oil dependency and its unwelcome presence in the Middle East, the environmentalists' vision of a more energy-efficient, less resource-dependent way of life is the most cogent long-term response yet put forward about how to truly strengthen national security.

If something heartening has come out of the Sept. 11 tragedies, it is that this vision is no longer limited to environmentalists. With energy security on everyone's mind, solutions that have long been advocated by environmentalists -- renewable and alternative energy sources, and dispersed as opposed to centralized generation -- are suddenly being touted even by some who have generally been far from eco-friendly.

That also takes into account the Bush Administration itself. In mid-January, 2002, for instance, U.S. Energy Secretary Spence Abraham returned to his home state of Michigan to tout Freedom Car, a new collaboration between the government and automakers to develop cars powered by hydrogen. Abraham was effusive in his vision of a more secure nation whisking around the countryside in nonpolluting cars and trucks.

Critics, among them prominent newspaper editorialists, immediately noted that developing a new fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles was probably a generation away, and that the Administration's plan's real effect was to scrap the $1.5 billion Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. That was a nine-year old Clinton-era program to develop by 2004 hybrid electric vehicles capable of getting 80 miles per gallon. Said the St. Paul Pioneer Press in an editorial on January 15 the Administration's announcement was a "bait and switch" adding that "the abrupt dismissal of high-mileage vehicle research for the near term has all the markings of a political stall."

Still, environmentalists can take credit both for the Administration's sensitivity to how to market the hydrogen fueled vehicles and the widespread criticism. Movement leaders have been thinking about the foreign and domestic consequences of U.S. energy policy for years; in the wake of Sept. 11, they mobilized fast to share those thoughts with the public. Even some conservatives were impressed.

"The ability of the environmental community to regroup after Sept. 11, and regain momentum around the debate over energy in particular, shows confidence and sophistication in reaching a national audience," said Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an influential Washington, D.C.-based libertarian research and policy organization. "It shows a skill level that is admirable."

But conservative thinkers haven't just been impressed by environmentalists' strategy; some of them, recently, have also been impressed by environmentalists' policy.

Nonsense and Sensibility

The main proving ground for post-Sept. 11 energy policy has been the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Republican leaders in Congress and their allies in the energy industry hope to open the refuge to oil drilling, a move that is vehemently opposed by environmentalists. Bill Bush, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade association in Washington, D.C., said, "We believe we're going to need more oil and gas in the future, regardless of what else we do. There are reasons it makes sense to develop in Alaska. It's a secure supply and we believe it can be done safely."

Environmentalist, however, say Alaska oil would be far from secure: They point out that last fall, a single drunken man managed to puncture the trans-Alaskan pipeline by firing a rifle at it, causing a 285,000-gallon oil spill. As for supply, the United States Geological Survey and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a technical research group in Washington, D.C., note that at peak production the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may yield only 500,000 barrels per day. The U.S. uses 19.45 million barrels of oil daily, according to the Department of Energy, or more than a quarter of global production.

In other words, the United States cannot drill its way out of oil dependence. A more rational response to energy insecurity, say environmental groups, is to focus on alternatives to oil and other fossil fuels, and to reduce demand. Improving the average fuel economy of American vehicles by just 3 miles per gallon, for instance, saves 1 million barrels of oil daily, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, twice what would be produced in the refuge.

These arguments are not new, but some of their advocates are. Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., said, "The environmentalists are right. A lot of conservatives buy into the analysis made by most pro-business groups that without ANWR we are vulnerable to the oil weapon. But you can't make that case on the grounds of national security. The idea that you can protect yourself from Middle East production behavior by pumping oil out of Alaska is nonsense. There just won't be enough production there to make a difference."

Terrorism Is Scarier Than Global Warming

Progressives and some conservatives agree that terrorism lends a graphic sense of urgency to environmental problems that more amorphous long-term global environmental threats like climate change were unable to conjure.

Precisely for that reason, there hasn't been a better opportunity to incorporate a green vision in national policy since the great decade-long period of national environmental policy-making from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Even before Sept. 11, environmental leaders were calling attention to an important shift in American priorities. Public opinion polls and 2000 election results indicated that many more Americans valued environmental safeguards, public health protections, and good government reforms designed to achieve both.

In recent interviews, both conservatives and environmentalists noted that the president's low polling numbers prior to Sept. 11 were due in large measure to Bush's disregard for environmental safeguards and his administration's efforts to weaken standards for arsenic in drinking water, undo Clinton-era protections for nearly 60 million acres of wilderness, and abandon international treaty negotiations to curb global warming.

The polls, which also demonstrated the public's declining esteem for the right-wing leadership in Congress, indicated that voters viewed the conservative message of lower taxes, less government, and opposition to abortion and gun control as out of touch. In a world where the American economy was shrinking, and concern about health care, education, traffic congestion, and environmental degradation were rising, the public understood that the solution was not more tax breaks for the rich, deregulation, subsidies for big industry, and neglect. The new priorities required a community response overseen by an engaged national government.

The Sept. 11 attacks have raised the stakes in the battle for effective government. In no arena are the choices more starkly apparent, or the chance for a progressive victory more readily attainable, than in the debate over energy.

Immediately after the attacks, Democratic support for a more sensible energy strategy was weakened by many members' fear of being tarred by the right as unpatriotic. Republican leaders and the president, arguing that opening the Arctic Refuge was a national security concern, sought to capitalize on this fear and simultaneously avoid a public debate by trying (unsuccessfully) to attach to new security and tax legislation a House bill that would open up the refuge to oil exploration as well as provide $27 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies to oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear producers.

Democratic resolve has since stiffened. Sen. Tom Daschle (D), the South Dakota majority leader, has blocked a vote on the energy bill until it can be fully discussed. And Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat of Massachusetts, vowed to lead a filibuster if the House energy bill somehow made it to the floor of the Senate.

In a speech in early November to the League of Conservation voters in New York, Kerry called the House energy bill "a charade." He added: "We're remembering the acts of those average, everyday Americans who went in that building and ran up some 40 flights with hoses over their backs to rescue people, and police officers who went in to maintain order in our country. There is somehow something grotesquely inappropriate in $20-plus billion in subsidies to oil and gas that are giveaways."

Meanwhile the environmental community is making the case to its membership and the media that energy interests are trying to loot the treasury and that an entirely new kind of energy strategy is warranted. Gregory Wetstone, the program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said his group alone has generated 510,000 email and fax messages to Congress in support of a more economically efficient, environmentally sensitive, and secure energy plan.

He said, "The Sept. 11 attacks added a new dimension to what the environmental community has been saying for years, because it is increasingly clear that we have to move beyond oil to find security, and not just energy security."

Keith Schneider, an environmental writer and former national correspondent for the New York Times, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a 2,200-member research and advocacy organization he co-founded in 1995. Schneider's work and other examples of the Institute's first-rate environmental journalism can be viewed at An earlier version of this article appeared in Grist Magazine.

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