Jan/Feb 2004

Big Sugar Bullies?

Big Sugar has won another victory in its opposition to cleaning up the mess it’s made in the Everglades (see "Bitter Sweets," feature, July/August 2003). Legal wrangling over how to clean up the phosphorus-polluted Florida waterway, and who’s going to pay for it, has dragged on for 15 years. In September, U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who has presided over this litigation from the start, was ordered off the case after complaints from the sugar industry. A federal judge agreed with Big Sugar that Hoeveler’s public criticism of intense industry lobbying, and the subsequent passage of a state bill rewriting the Everglades cleanup, showed impartiality. "It’s an outrage," says Mary Munson, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). "Judge Hoeveler has been nothing but objective and thorough."

Hoeveler’s randomly reassigned replacement, Federico Moreno, has little experience with environmental cases. Munson and others see a significant setback in the cleanup campaign. CONTACT: NPCA, (800)NAT-PARK, www.npca.org.

Starre Vartan

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Getting Burned by Flame Retardants

While the toxic heavy metal mercury already has a record for contaminating seafood (see "Heavy Metal Harm," cover story, May/June 2002), a new class of chemicals has emerged as a cause for concern: polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Also known as brominated flame retardants, they are used in many everyday products, including electronics, furniture and textiles. In animal studies, PBDEs have interrupted brain development, interfered with thyroid levels and perhaps even led to cancer.

A July report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows that the chemicals are rapidly accumulating in fish.

Numerous studies released this year show that levels in human beings are also increasing dramatically. Some of the highest levels recorded were found in Bay Area women. Eating fish could be a major exposure route, says EWG. The EPA announced in October that it’s considering a ban on two common forms of PBDEs. In August, these same PBDEs were banned in California. CONTACT: Environmental Working Group, (202)667-6982, www.ewg.org.

Pam Lundquist

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Above the Law

The Bush administration is gaining momentum in its rollback of environmental laws (see "Scorched Earth Policy," features, May/June 2001). Last November, with full White House cooperation, Congress voted to exempt the Department of Defense from complying with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon argued that these important laws, as well as the Clean Air Act and rules governing the handling of hazardous waste, were disrupting military training.

A Bush administration plan could allow Naval sonar systems to endanger marine mammals.©Jason Kremkau

A 2002 General Accounting Office investigation concluded that environmental laws had actually not hindered military operations and that the military had never taken advantage of national security clauses that allow it exemptions in times of crisis. On the other hand, military actions have the potential to harm wildlife: A judge ruled last August that the Navy’s new high-intensity sonar would violate environmental laws and could endanger marine mammals. "If Congress is willing to allow these exemptions now, what agency will it allow exemptions to next?" asks Vinay Jain of the National Wildlife Federation. "This is a dangerous precedent." CONTACT: National Wildlife Federation, (800)822-9919, www.nwf.org.

Tasha Eichenseher