Schwarzenegger’s Scorecard on the Environment

Appeared in:

  • Orange Coast Voice newspaper as Gov. Schwarzenegger earns mixed reviews,  Jan. 2009, p. 3.
  • Vall-E-Vents, newsletter for Sierra Club San Fernando Valley, as Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Latest Scorecard on the Environment?, March 2009.

Schwarzenegger’s Latest Scorecard on the Environment?
Mixed as usual

by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Governor Schwarzenegger

Gov. Schwarzenegger hosted a summit on global climate in November, 2008 in Los Angeles.

Throughout his tenure as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has earned mixed reviews from the environmental community for his positions on environmental issues. Last September, during the final throes of the 2007-2008 legislative session, reactions again ranged from standing ovations for his signature on groundbreaking new protections against hazardous chemicals to cries of foul play for the veto of legislation to clean up polluted air in the state’s port cities.

The following highlights the fate of several bills impacting California’s environment as they passed through the governor’s desk in the eleventh hour.

Toxic Chemicals
Roughly 100,000 chemicals are in use today, most without any environmental or human safety testing under antiquated federal regulation dating back three decades.

California’s governmental agencies also have lacked the authority to ensure that chemicals used in everyday consumer products are safe, even though many are known to be toxic to wildlife, lab animals, or humans or to resist breakdown in the environment. This approach has left it up to the California Legislature to decide, on a chemical-by-chemical basis, if a substance with a history of toxicity should be banned.

For instance, brominated flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), used widely in upholstered furniture and electronics, are known to interfere with developing nervous and endocrine systems in lab animals. High levels are found in marine mammals, polar bears and even human breast milk. Blood concentrations in Californians are about double that of the rest of the country according to research published last October in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Yet, recent attempts to limit this class of flame retardants in California failed passage in the legislature.

Endearing himself to environmentalists, Schwarzenegger approved the so-called “Green Chemistry” initiative, sweeping chemical policy reform that requires the state’s Department of Toxic Substances to identify dangerous chemicals in consumer products and take regulatory actions, including bans and product labeling, to protect the public and environment (AB 1879, Feuer). The state announced in December that fulfilling this mandate might entail requiring products to sport a bar code a consumer could scan to learn about their chemical makeup and how clean was the energy used in transporting them to market.

A companion bill, which also got a gubernatorial thumbs up, dictates creation of a web-based database allowing consumers to track the chemical safety of products they use (SB 509, Simitian). Together, this duo lays the framework for the most comprehensive regulation of its kind anywhere.

A lower profile bill also signed into law seeks to keep the neurotoxin mercury out of landfills by establishing a collection system for discarded thermostats from older air conditioning and heating systems (AB 2347, Ruskin).

Air Quality
In a stunning blow to health and environment advocates,Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation touted as critical to cleaning up dirty air at ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Oaklandthat together handle 40% of the nation’s cargo and generate the majority of the state’s particulate pollution from diesel (SB 974, Lowenthal).The proposed $30 pollution fee on cargo containers would have been used to mitigate traffic congestion at the ports and air pollution in the surrounding communities.

Senator Lowenthal of Long Beach has accused the governor of selling out to business interests to the detriment of Californians’ health; state air regulators attribute3,700 premature deaths annually to toxic emissions from freight moved through California.

Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska had appealed to Schwarzenegger to oppose the port bill on the grounds it would increase the cost of goods shipped to her state. Schwarzenegger endorsed the Republican presidential ticket.

Plastic Bags and Packaging
Manufacturers of plastic bags and food packaging sometimes bandy claims like ‘biodegradable,’ ‘degradable,’ or ‘compostable’ with no accountability for what these terms might mean. To reign in false advertising, the governor enacted two laws insuring that the above terms are used only when specific standards are met, as spelled out by the American Society for Testing and Materials (AB 1972, DeSaulneir & AB 2071, Karnett).

Schwarzenegger also signed yes to a regulation requiring that, by 2012, all polystyrene used to make foam packing peanuts sold in California need be made of recycled material (AB 3025, Lieber). Packing peanuts create litter, burden landfills, and sicken marine animals that mistake them for food.

Legislation mandating the replacement in food contact substances of perfluorinated compounds with safer alternatives was vetoed (SB 1313, Corbett). These compounds are used in grease-proof coatings, as in the lining of microwave popcorn and pet food bags. They are widespread in human tissues, do not break down in the environment, and are considered likely human carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board.

Global Warming
The number of miles Californians drive has risen at double the rate of population growth, in large part because urban sprawl creates longer commutes to work. More driving means more tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.

To curb urban sprawl, Schwarzenegger gave the nod to legislation crafted to reward transportation funds to communities built on a sustainable model of keeping homes and workplaces closer together (SB 375, Steinberg).

Drought Prevention
A handful of bills aiming to address California’s ongoing drought also earned the governor’s signature approval, including one approving over $800 million for projects to boost water supplies and bolster levees (SB XX 1, Perata) and another asking public water agencies to adopt conservation rate structures that reward consumers for using less water (AB 2882, Davis).

Ocean Protections
Marine life suffered a few veto hits, among them an effort to establish a program to recover derelict fishing gear, like abandoned nets and traps, which kill off countless sea creatures (SB 899, Simitian).

Going on past record, predicting Schwarzenegger’s stances on future environmental legislations is much like pinning down mercury. While the recent ballooning of the state’s budget deficit might have environmental watchdogs bracing for disappointments, no doubt fingers are being crossed in hopes that the governor will nevertheless make good on his promise to keep California at the forefront of environmental protections.

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