When I started broadcasting almost a quarter of a century ago, I had a problem after my third week on air: I simply ran out of things to say. Lee Chapman, then head of the Fort Worth New Car Dealers Association and now head of the combined Dallas Fort Worth group, suggested I call Karen Phillips, legal counsel for the Texas Automobile Dealers Association. She was quick to respond, “Have you read the Clean Air Act of 1990?”
I hadn’t, but I did; that kept me busy for the next five years. Some aspects of the Clean Air Act caused massive damage to the nation’s water systems when they went into effect. Other parts were so nonsensical they were summarily killed before they could take effect.
We forget now. But in the early Nineties, in metro areas with air quality that the EPA classified as severe non-attainment, businesses employing more than 100 workers had to file plans designed to get 25 percent of their employees to carpool to work. The Houston plan would wind up a major story for the Wall Street Journal; reporters discovered that the school system was trying to find a way to declare its students workers, so that busing them to class would substitute for teachers failing to carpool. And the city’s transit system said that if its bus drivers had to carpool, not enough of them would ever get to work to handle the needs of riders without personal vehicles.
Maybe the most cynical plan was McGinnis Cadillac’s, with 104 employees: The plan he filed was to fire five workers and get under the 100-person quota, so nobody had to carpool.
But in 1995, before this Employee Commute Options mandate from the Clean Air Act would have gone into effect, Congress passed a bill and Bill Clinton signed it into law; and it became the first time in our history that an environmental mandate was stricken from a Clean Air Act.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t all the CAA did. It also enacted a mandate to add an oxygenate to our gasoline supplies, ostensibly to reduce smog from the nation’s automobiles even more. This is what created the reformulated fuel standards. The oil industry wanted to use Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, even though in the 1980s there had been issues with contaminated water supplies that weren’t widely reported. However, soon after that chemical was added to fuel, some Alaskans developed flu-like symptoms and were hospitalized, and doctors discovered it came from inhaling MTBE fumes while refueling.
In December of 1992 Alaska suspended the use of MTBE in gasoline and the EPA did not fight that. By 1995 the AMA sent a brochure to physicians suggesting ways to differentiate MTBE contamination from flu diagnoses; one question to ask patients was whether they smelled turpentine while showering. The next year Santa Monica, Calif., was forced to shut down its water supply over just such contamination. It had taken only one cup of MTBE to destroy the water for nearly 1 million people. That was the red line crossed that took MTBE out of our gasoline and moved the nation over to ethanol as our fuel oxygenate.
Yet there was still something wrong with all this. It came in a column I read, about the reformulated gasoline standards from the Clean Air Act, in which the journalist called MTBE a “miracle” chemical for its ability to help reduce emissions from automobiles, adding that the chemical had been around for decades. Well, for one thing, there’s no such thing as a “miracle” chemical. But more troubling to me was the concept that adding an “oxygenate” to gasoline would cause it to burn cleaner and therefore lower emissions. Maybe that was true in the days of four-barrel carburetors, but as the Nineties arrived we were entering the era of computerized fuel injection systems in automobiles. Therefore, any oxygenate added to the gasoline would be useless — or even detrimental to the programmed fuel injection systems’ function.
Billions of dollars were lost in lawsuits for MTBE poisoning of water systems and wells. Obviously, the EPA took two major hits to its credibility with the public over issues forced on the nation by the Clean Air Act of 1990; but the EPA was simply enforcing legislation that Congress passed.
Along the way I was introduced to two important individuals. One was Richard Bills, who at the time was in charge of maintenance for many of Fort Worth’s municipal vehicles; and the other was Dr. Kay Jones, who had been around since the EPA’s beginning, sat on Jimmy Carter’s Environmental Council, and often did peer reviews for EPA studies.
From Bills I learned that if one does one’s vehicle maintenance flawlessly, even 100,000 miles later an engine will still put out the same one hydrocarbon that it did the day the owner drove it home. From Dr. Jones I learned that Congress loves passing legislation that is ten years behind currently available technology by the time it goes into effect.
Jones completely agreed that putting an oxygenate in gasoline was useless, given the computerization then making its way into automobiles. But he also taught me one other thing: The smog levels in cities across America were falling at virtually the same percentages, whether cities forced emissions testing on vehicles or not. Why? Because it was not federal mandates for cities and citizens that were removing automobile emissions as a critical pollutant, it was the federal mandate forcing automakers to find ways to make their new vehicles far cleaner.
The tragedy no textbook reported
Somewhere in this period the EPA was taking a pounding from the public, and certain industries were no longer always “the bad guy.” This may be a function of how government reacts to its mistakes. Instead of ‘fessing up and correcting them quickly, as they did in jettisoning the mandate for mass carpooling, more often than not the agencies circle the wagons and defend what is frequently indefensible. And in doing so they say things that, upon fact checking, easily prove to be false — and yet they won’t back down or recant. Therefore their credibility is diminished.
Meanwhile, huge environmental tragedies are occurring across the country that only on the rarest of occasions get any media attention at all.
One of those is just a five-hour drive north from Fort Worth. And if you go to Zillow or Realtor.com you’ll see plenty of streets and houses, but absolutely nothing in this town is for sale. This northern Oklahoma spot was once a city that boasted a population of 14,000 citizens; nobody lives there anymore.
It started with the discovery of both lead and zinc on the Quapaw Indian tribe’s land around the time of the Great War. Of course the tribe could not have cared less about commercial mining operations on their property, ore brought out and the metals removed; and so, when the Quapaw refused to sell or lease their property for such use, the Bureau of Indian Affairs simply declared them incompetent and leased their land out from under them.
Now, at the time both lead and zinc, the latter of which makes alloys more corrosion resistant, were critical to the war effort; but that only lasted a few years, and then the auto industry really took off in this country. And both metals are critically important to automobile production. That strip of land from Oklahoma into Kansas became one of the most important regions for this type of mining — which ultimately destroyed the land, the water table and eventually killed the city of Picher, Okla.
The mines played out around 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. What was left as the mining companies drifted away was man-made foothills, some 200 feet high, of the leftover chat. Chat is what remains after the crude ore is taken out of the ground and crushed and the valuable metals removed in the region’s mills; they just piled it up and let the wind do with it what it would. According to an article years ago in The Atlantic, the Picher Mining Fields took out 181 million tons of ore to yield 1.7 million tons of lead and 8.8 million tons of zinc. But when the water pumps were turned off as the mining companies left, the wind blew heavy metal dust from those huge chat piles onto the citizens and into their lungs.
Kids started getting caustic burns from swimming in the local ponds, never dreaming they were full of dangerous chemicals. Turned out, the mining companies had been so set on getting every last bit of metal out of the region, they had drilled up near the surface, causing sinkholes in the middle of the streets and near homes. By the turn of this last century, the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed the worst: Almost a third of the homes in Picher were in danger of collapse from the massive underground voids.
At the same time that Congress was working on ending the mandatory carpooling law in major cities, six out of every 10 children in Picher were still suffering from lead poisoning. The EPA had capped the mine shafts and gone deeper into the aquifer to find pure drinking water, but in the end nothing worked. Picher, Okla., finally needed to be evacuated. Offers were made to buy everyone out of their homes after all remediation attempts had failed.
The families started to leave, and there went the tax base. With that, the schools started closing and, in September of 2009, the city government ceased to exist. A few stayed behind; thinking they had made it that long in town and had no ill effects from the contamination, they laughingly called themselves the Chat Rats. But this northern Oklahoma town that at its peak 14,000 people once called home was dead, just not yet buried.
The first six years of my career in radio seem to have been driven by the foolishness that was legislated into the Clean Air Act of 1990. Those missteps and a great deal of government arrogance damaged the EPA in the public’s mind. Certainly in this column, while never denying that the climate has changed, we’ve often covered the contradictory science, predictions and pronouncements concerning the global warming issue. But at the same time everyone has ignored the truly massive environmental disasters that you can drive to and look at just 300 miles away — where a town that once was home to 14,000 people has ceased to exist.
And you know one person who knows this story well? Scott Pruitt, new head of the EPA. One wonders whether Pruitt thought about the object lesson of trusting many mine operators, the kind that destroyed Picher and then walked away, for two seconds before he authorized a mining operation at Bristol Bay, Alaska, considered one of the world’s most valuable salmon fisheries.
It’s one thing to call the government and EPA out on some very foolish things they’ve done saying that they were trying to protect the environment. It’s quite another when they intentionally do damaging things with no concern for the environment at all.
Note from Ed: Two weeks ago I told the story of how GM’s Silao factory workers used the Suburbans they built as their overnight accommodations. I got that fact from the original GM DCS message to dealers in 1996, and I personally knew of a couple of Suburbans that had to be bought back for the reasons stated in the column. Well, Gary Giles read that; he was GM’s manager who built and ran Silao until 1997. Giles informed me that, DCS message notwithstanding, it was investigated and determined that no GM worker employed at Silao used the Suburbans to sleep (and toilet) in; this likely happened, he said, when illegal immigrants commandeered those same vehicles during their rail transit to America.
© Ed Wallace 2017
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org