Indicators: Fall 1999

Oysters Come Home

Oysters, which disappeared from the Hudson River in the 1970s due to over-harvesting, dredging, and pollution, may be making a comeback.

Once plentiful, oysters had not been found in the Hudson for decades until last December when a fisherman hauled in a dozen near Yonkers, New York.

The newly found oysters are viewed by many as a sign that the water quality of the Hudson is improving due to the construction of a network of sewage treatment plants, the closing of three nearby copper plants, and the cleanup of industrial pollutants from the upper Hudson.

– Jennifer McCullough

The WTO: What's at Stake?

More than 5,000 trade officials, dozens of heads of state from more than 130 nations, and 1,500 reporters will converge on Seattle in November for the biggest international trade confab on American soil in 50 years. The Third Ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO) could launch a sweeping new “millennial” round of international trade negotiations.

Don't be fooled by the dry agenda or the organization's name. The WTO affects much more than trade. Thanks to new rules designed to constrain “non-tariff trade barriers” (i.e., any local, state, or national policy that could affect trade), the WTO has become a global arbiter of human, environmental, public health, and labor rights. For instance:

 The Clinton Administration weakened portions of the US Clean Air Act and protections for endangered sea turtles after WTO dispute panels ruled that parts of both laws were illegal trade barriers;

 The WTO has authorized trade sanctions to force Europe to lift its ban on beef treated with growth hormones. The Clinton Administration had argued that the ban lacked a basis in “science” and was a barrier to US beef exports. The Europeans defend the “precautionary principle” that allows protective action when science offers incomplete information. The WTO ordered Europe to open its market to US hormone-treated beef even after the European Parliament voted unanimously to uphold the ban. In an ironic twist, the WTO ruling sparked new research, which shows that hormone residues can indeed cause cancer, offering justification for Europe's “better safe than sorry” policy; and

 A federal court recently struck down a Massachusetts law designed to promote human rights in Burma, in part on grounds that the law conflicted with WTO rules that require states to treat all firms the same, regardless of whether they do business with egregious violators of human rights. With a track record like this, it is no surprise that citizen groups worldwide are closely watch-dogging the Seattle Summit's proposed agenda. Here's a brief rundown on likely issues:

  • Food security and the family farmer. Talks to promote agricultural trade could help to eliminate subsidies that have supported many family farmers and local food production in Japan, Europe, and throughout the developing world. The main beneficiaries would likely be giant, US agribusiness companies, whose production methods emphasize animal factory farms, the widespread use of antibiotics, growth hormones, heavy inputs of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the use of fossil fuels.
  • Deforestation. Trade agreements that could be signed in Seattle may accelerate wood consumption and deforestation around the world. Negotiators are now rushing to complete agreement on “accelerated tariff elimination” in eight industrial sectors, including forest products, fish, and energy. A leaked timber industry study predicts a worldwide hike in wood consumption if the forest products agreement is signed. The Administration has so far refused environmentalists' request for an objective environmental assessment of the proposed agreements.
  • Local sovereignty. Talks on a new investors' agreement could be launched that would hamstring local sovereignty and environmental protection around the world. Modeled on the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the new agreement could give corporations the right to sue governments over laws and regulations that hurt their profits. As Californians recently learned, such investor rights can compromise state sovereignty. In July, Methanex corporation of Canada announced plans to sue under NAFTA's investor protections for nearly $1 billion after California banned MTBE, a cancer-causing gasoline additive that is now leaking into the state's ground-water. Methanex complains that the ban hurt its stock prices, so California could be forced to pay for the privilege of protecting public health.
  • Biotech. The Clinton Administration wants to negotiate a new agreement on biotechnology that could compel Europe to accept American bioengineered food and seeds. But European consumers worry about potential, long-term health effects of eating grains, fruits, or vegetables that pack a potent pesticide bio-engineered into the plant's genetic make up. Any biotech agreement would probably reflect the WTO principle that importers must prove a risk before they ban an import. For new products, such proof might not be available until widespread harm has already been done.

Led by India, a growing number of southern countries are resisting the North's call to negotiate sweeping new trade agreements in Seattle. They have now been joined by citizens' groups from around the world in a call for an “assessment round” to “review and repair” the WTO, rather than enhance its powers. Labor, environmental, consumer, and family farm organizations will add political momentum to calls for “review and repair” by organizing major demonstrations in Seattle. Predictions for citizen turnout range into the tens of thousands.

In a recent letter to the Clinton Administration, US environmental groups outlined their “review and repair” agenda, including:

  •  a thorough, balanced, and objective environmental impact assessment of all WTO agreements, past and present;
  •  changes to WTO rules to safeguard legitimate health and environmental laws from attack as trade barriers; and,
  •  elimination of the most controversial issues, such as investment and forestry, from the WTO agenda.

So far, the administration shows few signs of responding to citizens' concerns. But, then again, the administration never responded to citizens concerns over the MAI – and that agreement has not yet seen the light of day.

– Dan Seligman

Hague Appeal for Peace

An estimated 7,000 delegates from more than 600 human rights, environmental, development, spiritual, and peace organizations gathered in The Hague in May for the largest international peace conference ever held.

The Hague Appeal for Peace (HAP), which took place on the centennial of Czar Nicholas II's 26-nation Hague peace conference, was unique because it was organized entirely by civil society, not governments. During the five days of the conference, attendees redefined “peace” as not only the absence of conflict, but also the absence of economic and social injustice.

Conference delegates created the Hague Agenda for Peace, which will be formally presented to the 1999 UN General Assembly in the fall. Attendees also launched an international action network on small arms, an initiative aimed at ending the use of children as soldiers, and a campaign for peace education.

– Tracy Rysavy


World Poverty Boom

The World Bank reports that the number of people living on less than $1 a day will most likely climb to 1.5 billion by year's end.

The World Bank report “implied that the increase was caused in part by the international rescue packages begun to help Asian countries overcome their economic difficulties,” according to the New York Times. “The bank did not mention the IMF by name, but said these packages bore down too harshly on the least well-off sections of the population and should have been more carefully designed.”

There has been a 22 percent decline in the standard of living in the past year in urban Korea, a 24 percent decline in Indonesia, and a 14 percent decline in Thailand.

– The Progressive Review

Y2K Reckoning

With less than six months to go until the calendar rolls over, citizens and government officials are focusing on health and safety issues related to the Y2K computer bug.

In California's San Fernando Valley, a Y2K test of the emergency system at a sanitation plant resulted in 4 million gallons of raw sewage spilling into the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area on June 16. The spill occurred when a gate controlling the transfer of sewage from a large pipeline mistakenly closed during the test, backing up sewage for about two hours before a park ranger noticed the problem.

The Y2K problem dates back to the 1960s, when computer programmers began designating the year with two digits instead of four. In the year 2000, computer systems could read “00” as either “1900” or “2000,” resulting in malfunctions or miscalculations.

Concerns about nuclear weapons safety has led to an international campaign, based in Japan, to call for the disabling of nuclear weapons during the turn of the millennium. A World Atomic Safety Holiday would reduce risk of an accidental release of nuclear weapons – and a world without armed nuclear missiles might turn out to be something we could get to like, say organizers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates US nuclear power plants, is planning for additional staff and improved communications, and is drawing up contingency plans for the dawn of the new century.

According to the NRC, 35 of the 103 US nuclear reactors are not yet Y2K ready. The NRC has received reports from all 103 operating nuclear power plants indicating that there are no Y2K-related problems that directly affect the performance of safety systems.

Of the 35 plants that are not Y2K ready, about one-third have remaining work involving systems needed for power generation. The other plants have work that deals with plant monitoring and administrative systems. None of the remaining work affects the ability of a plant to shut down safely if needed, says the NRC, as the protection systems on all plants have analog backups and can be run manually.

However, David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that security and plant monitoring systems are the same type of systems that caused the infamous accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in 1979.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, is one of many groups around the world calling for plants that are not Y2K compliant to be shut down by December 1, 1999, and they're calling for a nuclear moratorium on January 1, 2000.

Meanwhile, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is stressing community preparedness for the 85 million Americans living or working within five miles of the nation's 66,000 hazardous plants in case of fire or toxic spills.

Dr. Angela Summers, an independent safety consultant and chemical engineer, says, “For some of the companies without adequate Y2K preparation, it's likely that some kind of incident will occur – a potential fire, explosion, or toxic release.”

As for the US government, a report released in June stated that federal mission-critical systems are 94 percent compliant, up from 79 percent in February. The Air Traffic Control System and the Department of Health and Human Service's Payment Management System, which controls Medicaid, are not yet Y2K compliant. The Treasury Department, which issues Social Security checks, is not yet Y2K ready. The Social Security system itself and the National Weather Service are the only two critical government systems that have reached 100 percent “readiness.”

– Tracy Rysavy

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Nader for President

Gearing up for the 2000 presidential election, an informal presidential candidate exploratory committee for the Green Party is taking stock of their candidates. Among the pool are Connecticut Green member Ron Ouellette and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

In early June, Nader gave California Green delegates permission to enter his name in next year's California primary. Although he says his decision to run for president won't be made official until January, 2000 – and the National Nominating Convention will not be until June 2000 – he has outlined a campaign strategy that will be far more active than his last attempt to enter the White House.

Nader's platform will include genetic engineering issues, clean energy, corporate welfare, and extending democracy to workers, consumers, and citizens.

– Chloe Frommer

Disease Increase

Global warming could lead to increases in insect-borne diseases such as malaria and encephalitis, according to researchers at the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a report published recently in the British Medical Journal, WHO researchers assert that climate changes due to increased greenhouse gas emissions may lead to shifting rainfall patterns, increased precipitation and humidity, and the creation of new areas of floodwater. Such changes, they warned, could potentially lead to increased populations of disease-carrying animals such as mosquitos, ticks, and rats, all of which thrive in warmer temperatures and breed in damp areas.

Specifically, three European countries –Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey – are already danger zones for malaria. WHO researchers warn that as a result of global warming, mosquitos carrying malaria could migrate into the rest of Eastern Europe and into Western Europe. Other possible threats include ticks carrying encephalitis and lyme disease and sandflies carrying visceral leishmaniasis, which are likely to move into northern Europe if temperatures there increase.

– Jennifer McCullough

Blowing Smoke

The World Bank is promoting the use of dioxin-producing medical waste incineration in health sector projects in at least 20 countries, says a new report by the Multinationals Resource Center (MRC), a Washington, DC-based organization founded by Ralph Nader.

Babcar Ndaw of a Senegalese anti-incinerator network said of the World Bank's health sector projects: “We want funds to treat us and not to poison us.”

Medical waste incineration is increasingly being rejected in the US and other industrialized countries because it produces significant amounts of dioxin, a carcinogen, and mercury, a heavy metal that causes central nervous system, kidney, and lung damage.

“While the US is turning away from this technology, it is incredibly ironic that the World Bank ... is facilitating the spread of this dangerous technology to Third World Countries,” says Ann Leonard, director of MRC.

– Health Care Without Harm

US Wind Rush

The US wind industry finished up its best year ever as the month of June ended, installing a total of $1 billion worth of new generating equipment, says the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

The group says Americans completed a total of 892 megawatts (MW) of new projects and 181 MW of repowering projects – in which new turbines replace older, less efficient ones.

The final tally was more than double the previous record year of 1985, when some 400 MW was installed. The current “wind rush” was triggered by the expiration of a federal wind production tax credit on June 30. However, according to the AWEA, the increase was also partially founded on the growing consumer demand for green power.

–American Wind Energy Association


Bullyproofing Schools

In light of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, some schools are taking innovative measures to “bullyproof” their halls and classrooms.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Highline Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, began a program called “Bullyproofing Your School,” which now serves as a model for 300 schools. Students pledge not to bully others and to intervene when they see someone being picked on. They also promise to make an extra effort to include those they see sitting on the sidelines.

Highline counselor Paul Von Essen says that misconduct reports have been cut nearly in half since the program began.

And John Malzone, spokes-person for a North Carolina architecture firm, says that many schools are redesigning buildings to promote inclusivity.

“In the past, schools have been big, sprawling things, and that means lots of areas where big kids can pick on little kids,” Malzone told the Monitor. The new schools have wider halls and smaller playgrounds, he says.

– Tracy Rysavy


Biotech Backlash

Public resistance against genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops in Western Europe and India appears on the verge of spreading into North America.

The July 30 issue of The Wall Street Journal reports that the largest baby food manufacturer in the US, Gerber, plans to use organic flours in order to avoid possible GE ingredients. HJ Heinz is also planning to eliminate all GE ingredients from its baby food products.

Meanwhile, corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland has quit buying GE corn varieties not approved for sale in the European Union. That means about 6 percent of US corn will be unacceptable to the largest corn refiner in the nation.

The insurance industry is also weighing the risks of biotech. In the May 6th issue of Post, an insurance magazine, a manager for Cigna International recommends that insurance companies think twice before issuing policies to biotech companies: “Our experience with asbestos, PCBs, and other 'miracle' products in the past should have warned us of the potential dangers of diving into issues before we have adequate awareness of exposures.”

Joining those expressing worry about the rapid spread of biotech, 85 leading scientists have called for a halt to all further releases of GE organisms into the environment, a ban on patents on living organisms, and support for a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the future of agriculture and food security.

Consumer watchdog groups in the US are campaigning hard for GE standards already found in many European countries. In particular, they are working for mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods, so con-sumers can choose for themselves what to eat.

– Tracey McCowen

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