The Chemical Congressman
Congressman Ed Towns, who's embroiled in a Democratic primary with Harvard Law grad and activist Barry Ford, is one of four leading sponsors of a bill that will increase the use of toxic pesticides on food.
The billH.R. 1592, the so-called Regulatory Fairness and Openness Actis scheduled to be considered by the House Agriculture Committee next week, and shortly afterward it is expected to move to the House floor. It was introduced in April 1999 by Towns, Richard Pombo (R-California), Gary Condit (D-California), and Allen Boyd (D-Florida) to undo the strict safety standards established by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. The legislation will allow manufacturers to register new pesticides without conducting safety studies and will require the EPA to provide detailed justification before restricting any product suspected to be harmful, a process that may take years.
An investigative report by The Washington Post revealed that the bill was in fact written by pesticide lobbyist Edward C. Gray, vice president of the Washington-based firm Jellinek, Schwartz & Connolly Inc. and a former head of the EPA pesticide branch. "I was the guy with the typewriter," Gray admitted.
Gray's firm was hired by Implementation Working Group, a broad coalition of pesticide manufacturers, agricultural interests, and food processors. Congressman Towns received at least $8400 for his campaign from members of IWG in the weeks and months surrounding his announcement of the legislation. This includes a $1500 donation from American Crop Protection Association, $1500 from Novartis Crop Protection, and $1000 from Dupont.
"This bill is an ethical pigpen. It's everything people don't like about Congress," says Mike Casey, VP for public affairs at Environmental Working Group. "You have one pesticide lobbyist who wrote this bill, possibly in violation of House ethics rules. Really, it pits lobbyists against health protections for every child in America who eats produce."
In testimony last year before the House Committee on Agriculture, Towns explained the health benefits of pesticides for inner-city children. Since cockroach residues increase the incidence of asthma among children, he reasoned that more pesticides would prevent absences from school, hospitalizations, and deaths. "Insects like cockroaches can become immune to pesticides if only one or two products are used. Therefore we need a variety of products available," he said. Towns received $24,325 in campaign contributions from a variety of agricultural interests in 1999 and 2000.
"He's careful. The positions that he takes that represent special interests are those that he feels his constituents are most indifferent to," says Barry Ford, Towns's opponent in the 10th Congressional District. "We don't have a farming population here, so my instinct is that he has decided to be a full-throated supporter of the pesticide industry. He feels he can get away with it. We shouldn't have a person in Congress who simply sells his vote to the highest bidder." Towns could not be reached for comment.
The 10th Congressional District covers low-income neighborhoods like East New York, Bushwick, and Bedford Stuyvesant. According to Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, pro-pesticide legislation does the most damage in low-income areas. "Currently organic food tends to be more expensive than conventional food, making it less accessible to low-income people. Therefore low-income people are disproportionately eating more chemically treated food."
This is not the first time that the nine-term representative has accommodated the pesticide industry. In August 1996, Towns was a cosponsor of the Food Amendment and Drug Availability Act, which allows limited amounts of hazardous pesticides to be used on crops and in food. Before this amendment there had been a zero-tolerance policy. From '95 to '96 Towns received $19,700 from agricultural interests, including $2000 from American Crop Protection and $1000 from the National Food Processors Association.
In addition to kowtowing to the pesticide industry, Towns has served the needs of sugar producers to the detriment of his community. In 1997 Towns voted in support of the sugar-price support system, which has wreaked havoc on sugar processors like the Domino refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The sugar-price support system maintains U.S. sugar prices at artificially high levels. Last June Domino announced that it would have to lay off hundreds of workers largely due to the high cost of importing sugar for the factory to process. Towns received more than $23,000 from sugar-producing interests.
While the issues of pesticide interests and sugar producers shed new light on Towns, in 1998 The New York Times and many other publications assailed the congressman with criticism for his acquiescence to tobacco interests, going so far as to give him the nickname "Marlboro Man."
In 1997 he received $15,500 from the industry and voted against a $10 million increase in funding for the FDA's youth antismoking initiative. That same year he voted against gradually raising the tobacco tax by 15 cents to provide health insurance for low-income children and Medicaid to all disabled children. In 1994 he opposed smoking restrictions in restaurants and bars, saying, "People could end up with pneumonia" if they are forced to light up in the cold.
Towns has attributed his 52 percent showing in the last election, a low percentage for an incumbent, to the fact that he was helping his son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns, defeat a challenger. This time he is taking his opponent far more seriously, with a plan to spend $600,000 by primary day, double what he spent last year. Ford, a former state labor department attorney and litigator with a major firm, has raised less than half that amount.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.