The politics of risk
May [?] 1986
Illinois Issues introduction: The cast is huge on the political stage when it comes to the issues of toxics. The politicians and bureaucrats at every layer of government become involved, at times in struggles over which government is or should be in charge. Industry and environmentalists appear at odds on most every point, and consensus is elusive or nonexistent when government is faced with making decisions on toxics. The media play a persuasive role, too. Ultimately politics decides the most crucial question on toxics: How shall the risks be allocated?
This article is one of a five-part series. For more, see "Toxics and risk" on the "Nature & environment" page.
People may or may not get the quality of government they deserve, but they almost always get the government they want. Illinois is not usually counted among the pioneer states in the control of toxic pollution. It lacks California's noisy and sophisticated environmentalist constituency, as well as the mobilizing sense of crisis engendered by New Jersey's concentration of chemical plants.
The rest of the United States may not look to Springfield for solutions to its toxics problems but Illinoisans must. To the cynical, making toxics policy in Illinois is a little like dumping hazardous wastes into a leaky landfill: Even when one knows what goes into the process, the resulting interactions are so complex that it is impossible to predict what might seep out the other end, or when.
Toxics have changed the plots in the policy dramas which are acted out in Springfield. The issues often are argued at the edge of knowledge, with both public and private sectors pushed into unfamiliar realms of responsibility. However unaccustomed they may be to their new roles, the players are well-known. Industry and citizen group environmentalists are typically cast as hero and villain. (Which plays which varies with the audience.) They are supported by Congress, the General Assembly, local governments, top elected state officials (especially the governor), with the courts, the press, researchers and regulatory bureaucracies in bit parts. Each interest group has its factions trying their best to steal scenes, so the voices heard from the stage sometimes number in the dozens. With such a chorus it is not surprising that the audience sometimes finds it hard to understand what is said.
Consider industry. The problems of leading an army whose ranks are filled with captains of industry, each accustomed to command, can be formidable. Industry certainly is a cohesive political presence in the capital, but it is not a monolith. The corporate entities that make, move, and use toxics range in size from neighborhood dry cleaners to sprawling petroleum refineries; permit applications and reporting requirements that are a paperwork headache to the latter can mean bankruptcy for the former. Sid Marder is a former member of the Illinois Pollution Control Board and now is environmental consultant to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce (ISCC) and executive director of the new ISCC subsidiary, the Illinois Environmental Group. "There is essentially no consensus about how far or in what direction the business community wants to go" regarding toxics regulation, Marder explains. "There is a lot of discussion around here, a lot of controversy." Monsanto, the huge chemical company, broke ranks to express public support for a revised version of a bill, which business as a whole did not support, that guaranteed a community's right to know information about toxics in the community.
The ISCC is one umbrella group for business. The other is the Illinois Manufacturers' Association (IMA). On the issues of toxics, the ISCC has played George Schultz to the IMA's Casper Weinberger. In the 84th General Assembly the ISCC spoke against a proposal by the IMA to allocate seats on the Pollution Control Board to representatives of designated special interest groups; currently members are appointed at-large.
Environmentalists are just as diverse a force and just as prone to disagreement among themselves about political priorities. In spite of a decade of determined coalition building, largely through the medium of the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), it is only recently that the state's two dozen or so environmental groups have been able to pull together in Springfield. "We have to do a lot of horse-trading," admits Kevin Greene, IEC's part-time lobbyist. Often the trading is in bunnies or deer. Historically the group has been split into environmentalists and conservationists, the preoccupations of the former tending toward the ecological, those of the latter toward the recreational. Many of the IEC's member organizations are local groups, formed like a pearl in an oyster around a single issue from saving the prairie to solar energy. No statewide group is specifically devoted to toxics, however; the group that comes closest to filling that role is the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE), described by one veteran state environmental official as "one of the few groups that's banged away on hazardous wastes issues in general."
Toxics, however, are something everyone can be afraid of. "I think a coalition on toxics is being pulled together,” says Greene. He points out that er," two recent toxics initiatives, the community right-to-know bill and the legislation establishing a statewide health effects registry under the Department of Public Health, drew the support not just of the "bunny people" but key elements of the state's public health community, including state chapters of the lung, heart, and cancer societies.
Among the more important of the latter groups is the Illinois Public Health Association. "Some of our own members have raised our awareness of these issues and pushed to put them on the agenda of the association," explains Jeff Todd, the association's executive director. One of those members is John Deegan who, before becoming dean of the University of Illinois' School of Public Health, was project director for the Love Canal investigation for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) under Carter. The association's new commitment, Todd adds, follows from its growing realization that state and federal EPAs cannot, indeed were not designed to, address the issues of health damage from toxics. "It's too enormous a task," he says.
The effects of toxic pollution tend to be local in a political as well as an epidemiological sense. Not just county health departments but city councils and county boards have become parties to toxics policy-making in Illinois. They have done so more from necessity than zealotry — scared neighbors make nervous mayors — since they often are obliged to bear the political weight of administrative decisions made in Springfield or Washington, D.C.
Defense of the local environment often matters less to such officials than defense of local prerogatives against industry, bureaucrats, even other towns. The so-called "Not in My Back Yard Syndrome" owes less to the fact that toxics trucked in or blown in from somewhere else may be dangerous than to the fact that they are someone else's. As a result, the toxics agenda of local governments in Illinois is pretty simple: "Don't put them here."
A case in point is the 10 million pounds of abandoned cyanide-tainted chips found stored in a Lee County warehouse. Political and legal opposition from both ad hoc citizens' groups and county boards in turn frustrated attempts to ship the chips to Canada, to burn them in a Naperville incinerator, to clean them in a Lee County plant built for the purpose, even to ship them to the Caribbean island of Antigua. "Where are all those cyanide chips now?" asks Marder, laughing. "'You can't put them here. We don't want them here.' Maybe they're still being driven around the state in trucks."
State policy study
The state of Illinois has taken up the toxics issue only reluctantly, usually under prodding by agitated citizens and local officials from a specific community in the state or by Congress and the USEPA. When a task force of 14 state agencies drafted a new state water plan in 1982, toxic pollution was omitted from its final list of ten priority water problems because, as a scientist with the Illinois State Water Survey later complained, "It was too politically charged."
The consensus of concern which has emerged in Illinois since 1982 has not yet led to a consensus on what the state's role in toxics regulation ought to be. Nor does it seem likely to.
Policy in Illinois does not demand consensus, however, only a political preponderance on one side of an issue or another. Political clout in Springfield is added up using a very flexible kind of arithmetic. Industry spokesmen point to the mere existence of toxics control statutes as evidence that industry domination of the legislature is imperfect; environmentalists note that these same rules are less than perfectly encompassing when they bemoan that legislators never seem to listen to them.
Neither faction holds perfect sway, in short. It is true that toxics have become an issue that is hard to vote against, given the public's anxiety. (President Reagan learned that when his attempts to limit the scope of the reauthorized Superfund program were stymied by a balky congressional coalition that included members of his own party.) A prudent lawmaker these days wants to vote for somebody's toxics bill, in short. But whose? With all parties agreed in principle about the need for some regulation, the fate of specific proposals often swings on finances, headlines, and tactics of the antagonists. Most of the recent toxics control bills have been introduced by environmentalist lawmakers, but for the moment the tactical political advantage in the General Assembly rests with industry. Opportunities for an opponent to kill or weaken a bill abound. The chamber's Marder likes to say that it's easier to beat 'em than to pass 'em—to which Greene replies, "He ought to know."
Lawmakers have found it easier to acquire enthusiasm for toxics issues than expertise. Marder says that there is a "sore lack" of toxics experts in the General Assembly, as indeed there is a lack of experts on many issues. Although there are champions of the cause, such as Chicago Democrats Barbara Flynn Currie (26th District) and Woods Bowman (4th District) in the House, there is no one in either chamber who has a technician's grasp of the very technical issues surrounding toxics. As Marder explained, "There is no one like [Sen.] Art Berman on education or [Sen.] Dawn Clark Netsch on taxation. "
An experienced environmentalist lobbyist, who prefers anonymity, suggests that it is not a legislator's role to be an expert—"That's what staff is for." But Todd of the Illinois Public Health Association suggests that speaking out is not enough. "You need risk takers" to pass a controversial environmental bill in the General Assembly, he says, adding, "You won't find many of them, especially in an election year."
The media as player
Legislators may propose laws and governors may veto them, but the news media helps shape the political context within which such decisions are made and judged. The media have always been party to the policy process, but their swelling influence has made them something like full partners.
This is a role for which the media is not perfectly suited by either tradition or temperament. Media preference for the sensational and their impatience with complexity have left much of the public more anxious than informed about toxics issues. Any new law has an effect only after it takes effect, which is usually when the mass media quit covering it. The promulgation of regulations based on a new law, the probable judicial review of those regulations, and the subsequent implementation of the regulations by the appropriate bureaucracies make lousy stories, being technical, protracted, and non-visual.
Oozing dumps make headlines. Headlines drive public opinion. And public opinion drives politicians. Jake Dumelle has observed the process from his seat at the head of the Illinois Pollution Control Board, the rule-making body of Illinois' troika of environmental agencies. "The legislature every session passes 10 or 20 environmental bills, mostly dealing with landfills or hazardous wastes," Dumelle says. "Those bills are mostly in response to Love Canal or Wilsonville." He suggests that people are worried about contamination of their drinking water because of media coverage of such episodes. There is as yet no equivalent public clamor about airborne toxics, even though such pollution is acknowledged to occur on an equally wide scale and promises perhaps even more formidable consequences. As the Citizens for a Better Environment warned in the title of an article in its quarterly Environmental Review, "What you don't know can hurt you."
In a political sense, the media invented the toxics issue. This is not to say that toxics risks aren't real or substantial, only that toxics risks, examined out of context and sensationally, are made to seem more substantial than they may be, especially compared to other, mundane risks. A year ago, lobbyist Gayle Petersen of the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group suggested that pesticide misuse was a worrisome problem in Illinois, adding "It's unfortunate that we have to have a crisis to get something done about ' It was hard to tell which she regretted more, the prospect of such a crisis or its political necessity.
No public official in Illinois better understands the role of the media in policymaking than three-term Gov. James R. Thompson. He has spent enough time in protective "moon suits" during photo tours of toxic waste sites that he probably could qualify for a pension as an IEPA on-scene coordinator. As heir to the Republicans' business constituency, Thompson was long considered suspect on toxics issues. In his ten years as Illinois chief executive Thompson has revealed himself to be neither an environmentalist nor an ideologue, but a prudent pragmatist on environmental matters in general. Virginia Scott, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, expands: "Thompson has been a manager rather than a leader. But while he has seldom initiated strong environmental measures, he has responded to environmental concerns. For example, he has signed some landmark legislation." Scott points particularly to S.B. 171 (P.A. 82-572)—which bans the landfilling of all hazardous wastes in Illinois beginning January l, 1987, unless no feasible disposal alternative is shown to be available—and S.B. 172 (P.A. 83-682), which gives local governments the power to approve the siting of proposed landfills.
Scott goes on to say, "While the governor has made it clear that his bottom line is economic development, he is willing to accommodate with environmental interests." One typical example was Thompson's proposed legislation in 1982 to ban landfilling of liquid hazardous wastes beginning in 1984. He did so only with assurances that such a step would not hurt industry or cost Illinois jobs. Environmentalists also praise Thompson's recent appointments to key executive posts such as the Illinois Pollution Control Board of John Marlin, Bill Forcade and Ronald Flemal. Each is regarded as environmentally responsible and technically sound.
How much of the Thompson record can be traced to his being a good governor and how much to being a good politician is hard to say. As Thompson noted during his unprecedented fourand-a-half hour meeting with environmentalist representatives in March, toxics pollution, indeed environmentalism in general, is not an issue capable of swinging an Illinois election. He has resisted calls for interventionist-style regulation, focusing his administration's attentions instead on research and planning, the clean-up of abandoned waste sites, expanding monitoring and testing facilities, and bureaucratic reform. While a more activist opinion calls for regulation of a dangerous "present," Thompson has concentrated on the past and the future, possibly because it is in the present that the state is struggling to revive its economy.
Playing partisan politics
Inevitably, partisan politics intrudes. With so much that could be done on toxics, it is easy to accuse the party in power of not doing enough. It cannot be said that the airing of toxics issues in a partisan context has added much to public wisdom. With the Democrats trying to gain as many GOP seats as possible in the U.S. Senate in 1984, the Illinois campaign was featured nationwide. Democrat challenger Paul Simon accused incumbent Republican Sen. Charles H. Percy of having accepted in campaign contributions from what Simon called "the big polluters." Percy was also charged in that campaign of opposing funding for the federal Superfund program, but this charge was made by a trio of environmentalist organizations, including the Illinois Public Action Council.
Both charges against Percy were fairly typical of what then-USEPA director William Ruckelshaus described earlier that year as "dump stumping.' Although there was never a suggestion that the contributions were in any way illegal, a Chicago Tribune headline alluded to "tainted campaign funds.' The contributors, as it turned out, were only "potential polluters." Nor had Percy actually voted against Superfund funding; he had merely not expressed early support for an expansion of the program proposed in the U.S. House.
Partisans of more vigorous toxics controls have come to see politics as a form of hazardous waste. A series of budget cuts and reorganizations which began under then-Mayor Jane M. Byrne have left Chicago's Department of Environmental Control decimated and ill-equipped to cope with a new generation of pollution problems. Among the more plausible explanations for the cutbacks is one that describes them as an act of political vindictiveness aimed at Byrne's immediate predecessor, Michael A. Bilandic.
Illinois politics on toxics
Party partisanship is to policy what the flu is to the healthy adult: debilitating but seldom fatal. When the Illinois Hazardous Waste Task Force convened in 1983, it was dubbed the Hartigan-Rock task force after its two Democrat sponsors, Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan and Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park). The imputation of partisan motive was hard to avoid since it was generally understood that the task force hearings would offer the chance for Hartigan and the Democrats to get out front on the toxics issue as he headed into his expected run for the governorship in 1986.
Aside from the political motivation for establishing the task force, "the effort was pretty much bipartisan," recalls Bill Frerichs, who now helps run Hartigan's environmental control division. Members could hardly be said to have been chosen to rubberstamp a Democrat toxics program; there wasn't one. Frerichs explains that "most states had gotten together large numbers of people to look at these issues." The result of Illinois' task force was a set of recommendations for legislation and by Frerichs' count 18 new laws were enacted. Those bills were passed with the support of the Republican legislative leadership and signed into law by a Republican governor.
"Politics" is popularly understood to mean electoral politics. Institutional politics, however, also play a big part in shaping toxics policy. As part of a gubernatorial administration committed to balanced budgets, the IEPA has been obliged to accept appropriations cuts according to the governor's priorities, not agency ones. Private citizen groups confront similar exigencies. The need to solicit voluntary contributions can unconsciously shape the tone of debate; an outraged constituency often is a generous one when the group is the champion of the outraged. The new regulations, laws and programs have become ready political coin for these groups who will cite new government control programs as proof of their lobbying success and confirmation of the need for such groups to exist. Regulations have become a new kind of political rhetoric, according to IEPA director Richard Carlson; groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund have "an insatiable appetite for political food."
Central policy question
Politics of any stripe tend to be preoccupied with questions of "how," only intermittently and uncertainly with "why." Obscured by the daily flurry of deadlines and headlines is the central question of toxics policy: To whom and by whom should toxic risk be allocated when it can't be avoided?
Attempts by thoughtful people to state basic principles introduce as many questions as they answer. For example, the IEPA's Carlson asserts: "Government has a responsibility to see that we live in an environment that is safe enough that a citizen exercising a reasonable degree of caution can make his way through life alive." But what does "safe enough" mean? Or "reasonable"? Is avoiding premature death the only appropriate end of policy, or should impairment to life also be avoided?
One of Carlson's philosophical antagonists is Jim Yoho, an activist environmental attorney from Champaign. "The people most qualified to assess toxic risks are the people expected to live with them," he insists. "A risk may be said to be satisfactory when the people who bear it think it is." But does not such a principle give us democracy at the expense of governability?
In the pre-regulation era, risks from toxics were allocated willy-nilly by the economic system. Speaking generally, they still are. The aim of regulatory policy is to replace or at least modify the unwitting process of risk allocation by the marketplace with the conscious allocation by regulation.
The issue is thus refined but hardly settled. How should regulation seek to allocate risk, or toward what end? A free-market economist might ask of such a system, "Is risk allocated efficiently?" A social worker might ask, "Is it allocated fairly?" A plant manager might ask, "Is it allocated cheaply?" "Equitable" may mean one thing to a trade group whose concerns about regulation are largely limited to their costs, and quite another to an epidemiologist concerned about public health effects.
Unfortunately, such questions are not merely theoretical. Risks from toxics exposure vary enormously. Industrial workers for example are typically exposed to a larger number and quantity of toxic substances than the typical Illinoisan. It is this fact that makes workers such a successful "sentinel population," in the phrase used by Dr. Robert Spengler of the Illinois Department of Public Health. Some angry trade unionists and other non-epidemiologists prefer the term, "guinea pig." The degree of workplace risk can be reduced by process adjustments, protective clothing and so on, but risk is inescapably an aspect of some jobs.
Is such risk unfair? Workers must understand the nature and extent of risk because risk cannot be said to be freely undertaken if they don't. Regulation can require such reporting of risk, as it now does in Illinois. But how free can such a choice be if workers' ability to change to less hazardous work is limited by education, age, training, or economics? Are not workplace risks thus imposed on this one class of citizen for the profit of other classes and for the convenience of the general public? Can it be said that workers accept these risks? Or do they only tolerate them out of grim necessity?
Workers are not alone in this quandary. It is no accident that waste dumps and noxious factories are found in neighborhoods peopled by the poor and powerless. "Poverty," as a recent story in the Chicago Reader put it, "is a carcinogen." Or that some people are forced in effect to accept sickness as the price of making a living. Or that society as a whole tends to defer the costs of risk from the present to the future. A carelessly dumped barrel of trichloroethylene, which will take 30 years to penetrate and poison nearby wells, is a form of inequity visited not by one class or another but by one generation on the other.
The issue of equity is not new to the environmental debate. In the 1970s, for example, many communities balked at spending money to improve sewage treatment plants because the benefits achieved at such high costs flowed downstream. But toxics, as former USEPA director Ruckelshaus once lamented in a speech, made one almost wistful for sewage. The reduction of risk is a technical process, and the agencies assigned the job are not equipped to settle more fundamental issues of social equity. Allocating risk, insists the IEPA's Carlson, is "a social judgment, not a technical one."
The same perception is iterated, albeit in slightly different terms, across the state. "What level of risk is acceptable?" asks Gary Miller, research coordinator for the Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center in Urbana. "That's a political question, not a scientific one." And Robert Ginsberg, research director of the Citizens for a Better Environment, asks, "How important is public health? How do you rank it with steel production as an issue? Or interest rates? That's the underlying political problem."
These are questions with which the ordinary political debate does not deal well. There are a million ways in which economic gain is put ahead of human health, and not just by corporation officers; the widespread illegal use of cheaper leaded motor fuels in engines designed for unleaded is one commonplace example of heedless personal toxic policy. The equation of money and human life is repugnant in principle, even if it is convenient in practice, and it has been ruled effectively out of bounds in political discourse.
The forces of political compromise tend to push toxics legislation toward the safe center as it makes its way through the process. The forces of political rhetoric, on the other hand, tend to push public discourse toward shrillness and oversimplification. Toxics control is a matter of hard truths: People are getting sick, but there isn't much we can do that won't cost jobs and money or require changes in lifestyle, and it may not work even then.
Most responsible spokesmen on all sides shrink from speaking those thoughts out loud. Partly because of this refusal to speak plainly, the perception persists that simple cures exist, and lead the public to conclude that they are not applied because the people in charge are incompetent or corrupt. Thus does confusion breed cynicism. Partisans on all sides tend to agree that it is easier to argue about toxic risk in political forums than it is to discuss it. The public language used to debate the issue tends to be crude, and a little loud. But a quieter debate is also being carried on in such out-of-the-way forums as the Pollution Control Board. There, toxic policy is formed into practice using a language that owes less to politics than to science, economics, and the law, and through which the vague ambitions of politics are reduced to specific regulations which are not.
This second, semi-public language is an arcane argot filled with dockets and delistings and dose-responsive curves. It is the lingua franca of what amounts to Illinois' subgovernment for the environment. As elsewhere, this subgovernment consists of regulatory agencies, rule-making boards, special interests, specialty press, and affiliated public interest groups. The IEPA's Carlson explains: "An agency like this operates at two levels. There's the practical, everyday level where professionals make decisions about permits and so on that are totally undecipherable to the public. Then there's the symbolic side of government, where what we do has to be reassuring to that public."
Issues of ends as well as means are being left to regulatory agencies by default. It is not that deliberative bodies like the General Assembly and Congress are not providing implicit policy principles in the laws they pass. Rather, the problem is that the laws and the principles they embody are so often contradictory. One set of regulations holds human health the absolute standard of policy and beyond price; another counts human health as only one of several benefits, measurable in dollars. Lung cancer from asbestos is to be banned, regardless of costs; lung cancer from tobacco is not, in spite of them. And only those unfamiliar with the sometimes Alice in Wonderland nature of regulation need to ask why the law calls for specific permitted concentrations for known human carcinogens (the 5 microcuries per milleliter standard for radium in drinking water is one) that are officially judged to be safe in no concentration higher than zero.
In a 1983 paper, Roger Kasperson of Clark University's Center for Technology, Environment and Development, observed that toxic risk is an issue "ideally designed to breed indecision among beleaguered public officials whose training and experience are remote from the skills needed to resolve such issues." Carlson of the IEPA notes, "Everybody wants someone else to make the decision, and they want those decisions to result in absolute safety. " But absolute safety is impossible. "What should we be doing?" Carlson asks. "What degree of chemical safety do people want?" Thus we have toxics politics in a nutshell: an anxious public looking to its public protectors for guidance and instead of getting an easy answer finding the protectors looking right back through the looking glass. ●
Sidebar: A community's right to know:
Translating principles into policies
Last year's H.B. the community "right-to-know" bill, provides a lesson in the perils of converting politics into policy in the Illinois General Assembly. Right to know is several programs masquerading behind a single principle. Some right-to-know laws require companies to inform their workers of toxic substances used in the workplace. (Illinois' Toxic Substances Disclosure to Employees Act, passed in 1983 with support from both industry groups and organized labor, is one such law.) Other right-to-know laws are limited to information about the storage, handling, and transport of toxics whose accidental release may have catastrophic consequences. A third type focuses on routine discharges of toxics by industry, including emissions from smokestacks, deposits into on-site storage ponds, and so on.
H.B. 300 was modelled on this last type. The bill required Illinois industries to compile and submit to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency information on toxics that they discharge into air, water, or soil in the course of their routine operations. This information would be available upon request to citizens and local officials. Such data would have provided the state with its first comprehensive toxics catalog.
Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) was one of the groups pushing for H.B. 300. Kevin Greene, a CBE research associate who lobbied for it in Springfield, explains some putative benefits of the bill. "Public health officials could analyze the range of exposures to hazardous substances across media that occur in a specific community," he says, adding that such an approach would be "a major improvement" over the present one industry-one pollutant-one medium analytic approaches to the study of chronic health effects.
To its many backers, the right of ordinary citizens to know which toxic substances are manufactured, shipped, used, stored, and discharged next door is self-evident. Industry was opposed to the idea, in practice if not in principle. The reporting requirements could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to firms using many toxics. "We agree that informing communities about the chemicals that a company has on hand is a good idea," states Tom Reid, consultant on environmental matters to the Illinois Manufacturers' Association (IMA), "but no matter how well-intentioned an idea is, it still costs money to implement it." Industry also was irked by what it regarded as an inequity; H.B. required reporting only by industry, whereas the worker right-to-know act (P.A. 83-240) requires it of all employers, including governments.
Negotiations among the interested parties—a process usually referred to in Legislatese as "discussions"—led to the usual revisions. Sponsors agreed that firms could use engineering estimates instead of expensive real-world monitoring to calculate certain emission amounts; the list of reportable substances (which even backers admit was unwieldy) was trimmed to roughly 125. These changes earned the bill the support of a major state chemical firm and neutralized the opposition of the state's biggest commercial disposer of industrial waste.
Passage looked possible. Two factors intervened. One ironically, was the politically impeccable sponsorship of H.B. 300 by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President Philip J. Rock. The IMA, insists Tom Reid, was prepared to discuss seriously the Democrat-sponsored bill. They were stayed, however, by the attitude of the Democratic leadership. Recalls Reid, "Speaker Madigan told us, 'We're going to have a right-to-know bill whether you like it or not.'" Industry induced the Republican leadership to introduce an alternative bill (H.B. 2156) with much less rigorous reporting requirements. Reid admits that the decision was not made solely out of pique; football fields are not the only arenas in which the best defense is a good offense.
The industry-backed Republican version did have one provision that environmentalists admitted later was "fairly good." That provision required companies to draw up emergency response plans for potential toxic accidents. The provision proved crucial. Jeff Todd is executive director of the Illinois Public Health Association (IPHA), one of the backers of H.B. 300. He recalls the early weeks of 1985. "We were in the middle of H. B. 300 when all of a sudden Bhopal hit. It overshadowed all the discussion about chronic health effects and long-term environmental consequences of toxics. Everybody became all concerned about the one-of-a-kind incident. Immediate safety became the issue."
Industry lobbying began to focus on the emergency planning aspects of its bill. H.B. 300 passed the House but fell four votes short in the Senate. The Republican bill did not survive either; instead, a third bill (H.B. 1436) dealing expressly with planned emergency response eventually was passed and signed into law (P.A. 84-852) as the state's Chemical Safety Act. It is impossible to say yet whether chronic exposure to routine releases of toxics poses a graver threat to the health of Illinois than a Bhopal-type accident. Groups like CBE and IPHA believe it does. The public, however, probably does not. Certainly, people are inclined to fear chronic exposures less than they do chemical catastrophes. To that extent industry had public opinion behind it. Indeed, Sid Marder, consultant to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, insists that Illinois now has a community right-to-know law in the form of its Chemical Safety Act.
The revised H.B. was recently reintroduced with only minor changes as H.B. 2950. Similar provisions were part of the two versions of the reauthorized Superfund bills passed by the U.S. House and Senate in Washington; Greene describes those federal provisions as "fairly good" but adds, "They aren't as good as what we proposed for Illinois."
The Superfund reauthorization bill is stalled, however, in a congressional conference committee while members wrangle over both funding levels and funding mechanisms for cleaning up toxic sites. Inclusion of the right-to-know provisions seem probable. If included, says the chamber's Marder, the federal law will "defuse a lot of the issue at the state level." Greene agrees, saying, "Why have a dual system? We can be a fairly reasonable bunch." The problem as Greene sees it is when the federal reauthorization might pass. An impasse in conference committee, he fears, might lead to a one-year extension of the present act; after that, "they're back to Square One." ●