I-69 opponents ride momentum, Dan Burton confronts Lilly
A few years ago, it was hard to see how they could win. A strange-bedfellows coalition of environmentalists, farmers and taxpayer groups had organized in opposition to plans for a new terrain I-69 highway. They were taking on Gov. O"Bannon and business interests intent on building the road, no matter how many family farms, wetlands and tree-huggers were in the path. Surely, it seemed, power and money would win out, and the new terrain highway would be built.
Andy Knott of the Hoosier Environmental Council: "We have momentum on our side."
But lately, it"s becoming difficult to see how the I-69 opponents can lose. Earlier this month, leaders of what is now Indiana"s strongest grass-roots coalition went to the Statehouse and dumped a load of almost 17,000 letters and postcards, along with petitions bearing some 138,000 signatures, all opposing the new terrain routes. Then the Environmental Protection Agency formally lodged objections to the routes favored by O"Bannon"s Department of Transportation. The EPA"s letter stated that upgrading the existing U.S. 41/I-70 corridor, the alternative preferred by environmentalists, is far less expensive and has "at least two to three times less impact on multiple resources." In another development so odd one wonders how it could have been coincidental, one of the five preferred new terrain routes would actually cut into several hundred acres of the Decatur Township family farm of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar. Lugar reacted with an angry letter written on personal stationery to O"Bannon"s transportation director, in which the senator called the plan "a tragic public policy and environmental error." These events dominated the talk among I-69 opponents gathered for a lively rally last Saturday in a Northside elementary school gymnasium. The group shared food prepared on farms threatened by an I-69 extension and then marched several hundred-strong, led by a 13-foot puppet called "Apple Butter Mama," to the nearby Governor"s Mansion. Frank and Judy O"Bannon were not home to receive the covered dishes of pumpkin pie, chicken casserole and salad, but the message likely got through. Is Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan really going to wage a difficult 2004 run for governor with angry environmentalists - not to mention a 13-foot puppet - following him to every campaign event? Assuming a new terrain route is chosen that doesn"t impact the Lugar family farm, is the senator going to be able to follow his heated objections to the highway"s intrusion on his own property with quiet acceptance of the road"s destruction of his constituents" land? And how is the construction of a hundred-plus miles of new road going to survive resistance from environmentalists willing to chain themselves to bulldozers, if not something more drastic, in order to block the path through the farms and forests? "We have momentum on our side," Andy Knott of the Hoosier Environmental Council told the crowd at Saturday"s rally. Even with that optimism, Knott is quick to point out the struggle must continue for several more stages. O"Bannon is scheduled to issue a recommended route to the Federal Highway Administration by early next year, the feds must approve the route and then detailed environmental impact studies will begin, all before the first shovelful of dirt is turned over. But it is getting harder to see how a new terrain I-69 will ever happen. Dan Burton, our hero Here are four words you likely have never read in these pages, certainly not under this byline: Dan Burton is right. This month, both the House and Senate passed, and President Bush signed, a homeland security bill. Turns out the bill will also give significant financial security to Indianapolis pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. A quietly-inserted provision puts limits on lawsuits against manufacturers of thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative that some families and researchers allege is linked to childhood autism. The principal beneficiary of the bill"s protection is Lilly, which faces dozens of suits linked to the company"s sale of thimerosal. (Lilly denies any link between the vaccines and autism.) Since the 11th hour legislative Lilly benefit came to light, national and local reporters have amused themselves by chronicling how many embarrassed Republicans refuse to take credit for it. The House homeland security bill was carried by Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), whose spokesperson said it was inserted at the request of the Bush Administration. Not us, said the White House. Then Capitol eyes turned to Mitch Daniels, coincidentally both director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and former president of Lilly"s North American operations. Daniels said he didn"t know anything about it. Lilly spokesperson Ed Sagebiel says the company never lobbied for its inclusion in the homeland security bill. But one Republican, Central Indiana"s own Burton, is calling out his colleagues, his president and his area"s biggest corporation. "We had the audacity to take the only tool that these parents [of children with autism] had out of their hands to soothe the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured that," Burton said last Friday on the floor of the House. "The pharmaceutical companies, make no mistake about it, ought to be held responsible." The non-profit group Public Campaign calls the bill clause a "sop to drug manufacturer Eli Lilly," noting that the company gave at least $1.6 million to candidates during this most recent election cycle, nearly 80 percent of it to Republicans. That doesn"t include Lilly"s healthy contribution to the estimated $30 million spent by drug makers on TV ads backing Republican candidates under cover of names like "United Seniors Association" and "Citizens for Better Medicare." Burton, who has a grandson with autism, was among many House members who learned too late that the homeland security bill carried the Lilly-protecting clause. Once he discovered it, Burton objected, passionately speaking out on the tragic effects of autism, which several studies have shown is increasing at an alarming rate. "Instead of passing legislation that takes away the rights of families with vaccine-injured children," he said, "we should be passing legislation to try to help them." Those families may yet benefit from Burton"s help. Following the outcry led by Burton and others, Senate leaders quietly promised that the lawsuit bar would be revisited when Congress reconvenes in January. Whether mercury-based vaccine preservatives trigger autism is an open question. So is the issue of whether companies that manufacture life-saving vaccines deserve some type of limitation on their exposure to lawsuits. But instead of being debated, those open questions were resolved behind closed doors, thanks to the legalized bribery that is our system of financing political campaigns. Let"s say it once more, because who knows when the next chance may be: Dan Burton is right.