By: Coral Davenport
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Climate change wasn’t the only environmental issue on
Congress’s agenda over the past three years — it just seemed that way.
With the cap-and-trade bill dead in the Senate, lawmakers and environmental groups are looking to shine the spotlight on a slew of problems that received almost no attention in recent years, such as acid rain, overfishing, polluted drinking water and toxic chemicals in consumer products.
“It’s quite obvious for the last several years that the climate debate has sucked up all the oxygen from other environmental issues,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the nonprofit group Clean Air Watch. “After the fighting and exhaustion of climate, there are a lot of other issues waiting in the queue.”
In the coming year, environmentalists and their friends in Congress are likely to focus on smaller, more bang-for-your-buck environmental bad guys: discrete pollutants produced by only one sector or industry that have an immediate impact on human health — and are more accessible in the minds of voters.
The absence of climate change on the agenda “does sort of clear the deck,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told POLITICO. “So we’ll try to fill that vacuum.”
Similar smaller-scale environmental issues are also on the
move. On Tuesday, Boxer chaired a hearing on regulating environmental toxins
that could contribute to autism. Last week, House Democrats Ed Markey of
Massachusetts and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois introduced a bill that would for
the first time regulate toxic chemicals in personal products, such as makeup
and deodorant. And House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman
(D-Calif.) has a plan to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, which
regulates industrial chemicals in consumer products and hasn’t seen an overhaul
in 32 years.
“This is something people connect to immediately. This is something where industrial pollution occurs in the womb,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which is pushing Congress to revisit many of these smaller-scale pollutant issues.
Cook also sees an opening in the next couple of years to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act. Lawmakers in the Northeast fear that drinking water supplies are being contaminated as companies inject toxic chemicals in the ground to extract new supplies of natural gas. Western members are grappling with perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket flares that has contaminated water supplies in California and Nevada, where the Defense Department has dumped rocket equipment.
To some environmental groups that have devoted countless hours, media campaigns and lobbying expenditures over the past years to tackle climate change, a new focus on a handful of smaller issues seems depressing — an acknowledgement of the defeat on the biggest issue of all.
But Cook said it could also offer an opportunity to build new momentum and coalitions before the inevitable return of the climate debate.
“If you build in the American people’s mind the idea that Congress is taking on environmental issues one at a time, if you have a successful run politically — that could make it easier to build up support the next time you come back to this,” he said.