Late into the night Tuesday — the temporal fate of most environmental measures in Santa Monica — the Santa Monica City Council delayed the first reading of an ordinance that would ban the distribution of plastic bags after receiving a last-minute opposition letter from the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition.
The draft ordinance called for a ban on single-use plastic bags and a fee on single-use paper bags within six months of final approval. All good stuff, and the most far-reaching bag ordinance in the country. In response, opponents sent a 17- page letter that threatened litigation if Santa Monica approved the bag ordinance without a full-blown EIR.
The irony of the timing is that I just spent nearly three days in Democracy School, taught by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the folks that helped Ecuador incorporate the Rights of Nature in its new constitution. During the session, 15 environmental leaders learned about the legal history of corporations gaining the rights of persons in court and the ramifications of these decisions on environmental protection. No action could have been more illustrative of this issue than the shenanigans of the Save the Plastic Bag Council Tuesday.
The plastic polluters’ bag man, Stephen Joseph, sent the threatening letter the night before the council hearing and the basis of his argument was one of the environmental communities’ most effective tools: the California Environmental Quality Act.
Forget the fact that CEQA was written to protect the environment from the negative environmental impacts of projects and plans. The Plastiques have been using CEQA to stop basic governance decisions from local governments like Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica despite the fact that the industry representatives don’t live or work in the communities. If you were to believe the letter that reads as if it came straight out of Lewis Carroll, banning plastic bags will lead to major climate change and deforestation impacts.
Thank God the plastic industry is trying to save us from global warming. I’m sure its minions are working behind the scenes to make Copenhagen a big success in December, just as they have been working behind the scenes to get the Bush administration to change its mind on allowing California to regulate greenhouse gases. Not likely.
To say that the Coalition to Save the Plastic Bag’s letter was disingenuous is the understatement of the decade. All the plastic and chemical industries are looking to do on these lawsuits (they sued Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County, and Oakland on plastic bag actions) is to maximize corporate profits at the expense of the environment.
Nowhere in their letter do they claim that plastic bags aren’t ubiquitous in the aquatic environment. Instead, they focus on zealous environmental testimony that attributed the world’s marine debris caused deaths to marine mammals, sea birds and sea turtles all to plastic bags.
Also, the polluters claim that Santa Monica’s carefully crafted draft ordinance will shift stores to using more paper bags; an impossibility in light of the city’s proposed paper fee in the quarter-a- bag range. By clouding the issues and bringing up factual inconsistencies, the petrochemical and plastic bag industries are claiming that they should be allowed to continue to pollute at will until cities can quantify the magnitude of the damage caused by their products. Surely, this is the definition of insanity. Also, the precedent of being forced to complete an EIR on every ordinance or zoning change is beyond horrifying, and would lead to a perpetual state of inertia in local government.
On Tuesday night, about 20 Santa Monica High school students persevered through over five hours of hearings late on a school night to demonstrate the need for the bag ordinance. Two students dressed as the Bag Monster and the Cap Lady testified at the hearing, making light of the hypocrisy of saving the plastic bag. Some of these students testified on these same issues nearly a year ago, and they expressed their disappointment in the pace of Santa Monica’s action on disposable bags.
Despite the compelling and humorous testimony, the council went with the conservative recommendation of the city attorney to postpone the vote on the ordinance until an environmental study and CEQA document are prepared. As a longtime resident of Santa Monica, I’m positive that Santa Monica will do the right thing and eventually pass a strong ordinance. In the interim, corporate polluters can justifiably claim that their campaign to stop actions against single-use plastic containers through the abuse of CEQA and a real threat of litigation is paying dividends.