With the New Hampshire primaries approaching, I thought I’d share this article about how Hillary Clinton’s political style has directly affected New Hampshire voters in a way that might shed light on the kind of president she would be. The article was co-written with Friends of the Earth Action president Brent Blackwelder.
New Hampshire has for decades struggled to keep its air clean. But during 2005 and 2006, Hillary Clinton’s ambitions collided with New Hampshire’s air quality, putting thousands of Granite Staters, and particularly children, directly in the line of a deadly cloud of toxic pollution.
At the time, of course, Clinton was hotly engaged in a campaign to increase her margin of victory in her bid for reelection in her New York Senate race. Her triumph was never in question: she faced only token Republican opposition in a heavily Democratic state. But she was desperate to prove that she could win with a big margin in more conservative areas of upstate New York so she could prove to Democrats that she would be viable in similar conservative areas around the country during her presidential bid.
That understandable political aspiration came head to head with New Hampshire children’s health in 2005, when the International Paper logging company unveiled a proposal to burn tires at its Ticonderoga paper mill in upstate New York on the border with Vermont. Burning tires to power its operations would save IP money on its electricity bills, but it came with a heavy price.
Burning tires produces (PDF) massive quantities of mercury, benzene, and other cancer-causing poisons, and prevailing winds would carry those poisons into Vermont, New Hampshire, and the rest of New England. At the time, doctors and public health officials warned that even a very limited tire burn could cause permanent damage to New Englanders’ health, especially that of children, whose developing bodies are especially vulnerable to exposure to toxic chemicals. According to the American Lung Association, exposure to burning tires can cut years off someone’s life.
The dangers were so bad that Vermont’s Republican governor, Jim Douglas, took up the cause and launched lawsuits and an extended public campaign to persuade New York not to expose the residents of his state to these deadly risks.
Normally, it’s likely that Vermont’s efforts along with those of New York environmentalists would succeed in stopping such an outrageous plan. But IP had an ace up its sleeve in Hillary Clinton. The logging company’s strategists knew that Clinton would do almost anything to win votes in upstate New York and so they resorted to an old polluter trick: they threatened to close down the plant and fire the workers if they weren’t allowed to burn the tires.
It was the kind of absurd claim that Clinton had been exposed to hundreds of time in her political career, and she knew better. But even though she had put defending children’s welfare at the core of her political identity, even serving as chair of the Children’s Defense Fund, she was willing to sacrifice that value on the altar of her political ambition.
Clinton could have just stayed silent — the permit to allow the tire burn was a state issue. But she went out of her way to help the logging company, actively lobbying (PDF) the state government to allow the tire burn to go ahead. With Clinton’s influence behind them, the logging company had the bipartisan support it needed and New York State approved a two-week test tire burn, as a prelude to a permanent permit.
The test, however, was a disaster. The worst fears of environmentalists were realized as the pollution from the burn vastly exceeded even International Paper’s extremely lax pollution permit — exposing thousands of New Hampshire children to poisonous chemicals. Public outrage forced New York to shut down the test after just three days.
IP, of course, didn’t shut down the plant and didn’t lay off any workers (indeed, this December, they completed an $11-million upgrade at the facility and are planning on adding 12 new jobs at the plant).
But the episode did show that Hillary Clinton is willing to sacrifice even her most cherished value — children’s welfare — when she sees even the smallest political advantage in doing so.