Environmentally Challenged

The green-sounding Environmental Technology Challenge, a public-private partnership involving both the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and companies that paid $25,000 each to be “founding leaders,” was launched with much fanfare early this year in central Florida, Portland, Oregon, Baltimore, Chicago, and Chula Vista, California. The stated purpose: to encourage other corporations and municipalities to employ “environmentally-friendly” technology—some of it made by the founding leaders themselves.

The partnership does indeed promote some good ideas. But not all the technology showcased is environmentally friendly. A “wet” system to replace the highly-toxic traditional dry cleaning methods is one of the program’s better concepts, says Niaz Dorry, a biodiversity campaigner for Greenpeace in Boston. “But,” she adds, “some of it looks like greenwashing.”

For example, Baltimore’s entry in the Technology Challenge includes an industrial park that is adopting a “closed-loop” system for reusing toxic chemicals, which environmentalists say may be better than dumping them on the ground, but still leaves the materials in the environment.

At Anheuser-Busch’s Sea World park, in Orlando, Florida, Mayor Glenda Hood presided over a celebration of the Trane company’s Earth Wise CenTraVac centrifugal chillers. Several of the 1,200-ton devices cool both tourists and orcas at the attraction and are slated, according to Trane spokespeople, to save $1 million in operating costs while reducing powerplant-generated greenhouse gas emissions by 15 million tons. That’s laudable, but Trane is one of several large HVAC manufacturers tying their future to HCFC-123, the DuPont-manufactured chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) replacement that, while less harmful to the ozone layer in the short term, nonetheless has serious long-term effects.

For Kalee Kreider, communications director at the Washington-based Ozone Action, HCFC-123 “is the chemical industry’s choice, but it’s not necessarily the best choice for the environment. It’s simply switching from one ozone-depleter to another.” For its part, Trane says its leak-proof system won’t release any HCFC-123.

The forces behind the Environmental Technology Challenge are formidable. The Washington public relations firm Powell Tate’s principals are Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter’s former press secretary, and Sheila Tate, who handled that role for George Bush and Nancy Reagan. John Stauber, editor of the quarterly newsletter P.R. Watch, says their involvement is an ominous sign, since their firm received Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding “to change the common term for sewage sludge to `bio-solids,’ so it could be used as [still toxic] fertilizer on U.S. food crops.” Stauber’s new book, about just such public relations triumphs, is called Toxic Sludge Is Good For You.