|Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company’s Campbell Works, Youngstown, Ohio (c. 1960)|
Narrating the history of the environmental opposition has grown in importance over the past four decades as the rapid expansion of environmental laws gave way to a conservative antienvironmental movement determined to roll back policies seen as challenging older legal imperatives and in conflict with economic goals. Since the 1980s, first journalists and then historians have focused on the back and forth of environmental policymaking. The basic narrative is of an environmental backlash, which began in the mid-1970s in western states—the Sage Brush Rebellion that formed one of the conservative pillars in Reagan’s coalition. By the 1990s, protests over tightening federal land regulations coalesced ideologically into the wise use movement, which purported to be a modern update of Progressive Era practices (conservationist Gifford Pinchot coined the term “wise use” in 1910). As environmental politics became increasingly partisan, resurgent Republicans in Congress, such as Idaho’s Helen Chenoweth, Tom Delay of Texas, and Alaskan Don Young seized on the principles of wise use and made rolling back environmental regulations key to their “Contract with America.”
The Sage Brush Rebellion narrative provides a compelling shorthand for journalists and historians alike and is doubtless accurate in describing one element of the rise of the environmental opposition. However, the broader narrative of a grassroots backlash prompted by the relative liberalism of the 1970s has recently faced criticism by scholars who point out the ways this framework can mask the purposeful top-down strategies of powerful elites seeking policy wedges to divide the Democratic political coalition. Further, the regional focus of the Sage Brush Rebellion poses the same problems for the story of antienvironmentalism as the overemphasis on the American West that has often characterized scholarship on the environmental movement. While western concerns about federal land ownership sometimes dovetailed with fears among eastern politicians, industrialists, and blue-collar workers about the effects of environmental regulation on jobs, the latter proved at least as decisive in shaping the political landscape as conservationists within the Republican Party were first sidelined and then largely eliminated on the national level. The saga of the spotted owl and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, after all, cannot fully serve as a stand-in for battles over algae blooms in Lake Erie or acid rain in the Ohio Valley and New England. In industrial cities like Gary, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio, opponents of environmentalism seized on plant closures as proof positive of their concerns about privileging “clean air and pure water” over “jobs and continued economic progress.”
The combination of economic strain and an increasing federal involvement in environmental regulation prompted some Republican leaders... to promulgate a compelling antienvironmental narrative with the potential to split blue-collar workers from Democratic politicians who were otherwise seen as pro-labor. Corporate groups and their political allies perceived the Clean Air Act—with its complicated regulations and pervasive intrusion into what had been the prerogative of private industry—as a particular threat. Despite the CAA’s ongoing significance, however, it has received surprisingly little attention from historians....Later the article explains how Ohio's Republican Governor Rhodes used the federal Clean Air Act to build a narrative of job-killing environmental regulation:
Ohio’s experience with the CAA was particularly fraught because its coal’s average content of sulfur, which when burned produces the noxious gas sulfur dioxide and contributes to acid rain, was the highest in the nation. Since the CAA did not force existing utilities to adopt particular pollution-control technologies, even power plants built near mines along the Ohio River often found it cheaper to import low-sulfur coal from other areas, such as Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, than to install costly flue gas scrubbers to remove pollutants.... The return of Rhodes to the Columbus statehouse [in the mid-1970s] had immediate implications for Ohio’s implementation of the CAA, as state officials abruptly reversed course on the stringent sulfur dioxide controls they had agreed to in their SIP [State Implementation Plan]. In the wake of a court decision requiring federal officials to take into account the technological and economic feasibility of flue gas scrubbers to reduce sulfur omissions, the Rhodes administration withdrew its SIP entirely and refused to agree with EPA on any control plan.
Over the next decade, Rhodes’s calculated intransigence forced federal officials into the long and costly task of devising a control strategy for Ohio—the only state in the nation that required this level of intervention. While it may initially have seemed an odd choice for a governor who had long railed against the overreach of the federal government, forcing the federal EPA to take direct control of limiting sulfur dioxide emissions from Ohio’s power plants proved a brilliant strategic move. With federal bureaucrats in charge, rather than state officials, Rhodes could avoid the unpleasant situation of having to compromise his stance in order to implement a functioning SIP. Further, since many, though certainly not all of the environmental and health impacts of burning high-sulfur coal were transferred to downwind states, the political benefits of being seen to support miners and industrial workers outweighed objections by other residents and advocacy groups, including the Northern Ohio Lung Association, which filed a 1975 lawsuit in an attempt to force the state to comply with federal law....
Between 1976 and 1978, a number of factors converged that prompted Rhodes to sharpen his attacks on the CAA and make opposition to environmentalism a centerpiece of his administration. First, the 1976 election of Democrat Jimmy Carter as president brought to power an administration with less tolerance for Ohio’s continued delay in fulfilling its obligation to stem emissions. The replacement of Republican power with veto-proof Democratic majorities in the Ohio legislature compounded this decreased influence in national politics. Second, the late 1970s were a difficult time for the Upper Ohio Valley’s heavy industries. Mounting pressure on the region’s mines was exacerbated by a wave of large mill closures, beginning with Black Monday, when Youngstown Sheet & Tube abruptly shuttered its Campbell Works and eventually furloughed five thousand workers. Facing discontent among voters and unable to push forward his economic agenda in the legislature, the governor needed a defining issue, and he found it in EPA-bashing.