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Environmentalists stunned by failures of key measures in Legislature

Activists expected big gains, but a ban on plastic grocery bags, another on a chemical used in baby bottles and a bid to boost alternative energy fell short in the face of heavy industry opposition.

September 02, 2010|By Evan Halper, Marc Lifsher and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Environmentalists were counting on big gains in Sacramento this summer, with a governor eager to burnish his green credentials in his final months in office. But by the time the legislative session ended at midnight Tuesday, those hopes had fizzled.

Activists had worked for passage of such pioneering measures as a ban on plastic grocery bags and expanded use of the sun, wind and other renewable resources to power California homes and businesses. But the bold proposals they saw as a springboard to nationwide environmental efforts collapsed in the face of aggressive industry opposition that included intensive lobbying, television advertising and even mail to voters.

"We're in shock," said Mark Gold, president of the nonprofit Heal the Bay, which had helped lead a large coalition of activists, retailers and unions crusading for the bag ban.

The measure to bar grocery stores from giving away single-use plastic bags appeared headed for the books earlier in the summer, when it was approved by the Assembly and the governor said he would sign it. Backers say the sacks, which can take generations to decompose, have become a scourge on the environment, polluting the urban landscape and oceans alike.

But the American Chemical Council, a trade group, fought hard against the measure.

It spent $242,000 over six months to hire five lobbying firms as it opposed the ban before the battle even reached its peak in July and August, according to the group's most recent disclosures. The organization also bankrolled a television advertising blitz that exploited the political anxieties of lawmakers already under fire for the state's financial mess.

"California's in trouble," said the narrator in one ad. "2.3 million unemployed. A $19-billion deficit. And what are some Sacramento politicians focused on? Grocery bags.''

The chemical industry also wrote campaign checks to lawmakers for tens of thousands of dollars in recent months. Recipients included business-friendly Democrats in the state Senate who joined GOP colleagues to block the bill, AB 1998 by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica).

Tim Shestek, a senior director for the council, said the purpose of the ad campaign was to inform consumers what it would cost them if they were forced to pay for every grocery bag they used unless they carried their own. "The bill had some negative impacts on consumers and manufacturers," he said.

Environmentalists say they will take their own campaign to cities and counties, encouraging them to pass local bag bans. Los Angeles County and the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica are already considering such measures. Brownley lamented that instead of one uniform rule, "we'll have a patchwork of ordinances throughout the state."

The industry opposition was not the only thing that conspired against the bag ban and other major legislation championed by environmentalists. The absence, because of illness, of liberal Democratic Sens. Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach and Patricia Wiggins of Santa Rosa in the final weeks of the legislative session bolstered the clout of their more business-friendly colleagues.

Environmentalists also failed in their bid to wean consumers off another product they see as harmful: the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA. It is used to manufacture shatter-proof plastic baby bottles and sippy cups and can leach into food or drink, according to numerous scientific studies.

Many studies have linked the chemical to health and developmental problems. Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) proposed that its use be banned in feeding products for infants and toddlers. Her bill, SB 797, passed the Assembly but fell two votes short in the Senate. Oropeza and Wiggins probably would have voted for it, as they had in the past.

In a news release that sprawled for three pages, Pavley accused opponents of misleading lawmakers and the public with several false claims: that a ban could mean certain California food-packaging factories would have been shut down even though they don't produce BPA products; that low-income consumers would have been deprived of canned goods and possibly baby formula; and that alternatives to BPA are not available.

"It's not true," Pavley said in the release.

Another item on environmentalists' agenda this year was a measure to require one-third of California's power to come from non-polluting sources such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. A broad coalition that included electric utilities, solar-power companies and environmentalists was working to pass it, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support. Alternative-energy developers wanted the renewable-energy bill so they could show potential investors that California officials are serious about opening the market here.

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