Spills, leaks, explosions – the growing contamination of our world

Posted January 15th, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Spills, leaks, explosions – the growing contamination of our world

Well, at least the chemical spill in West Virginia has become a bit of a wake-up call about how easily our environment can become contaminated. You get up one day only to discover that the water coming out of your tap is too dangerous to even touch, too dangerous even to wash your clothes.

The chemical plume is headed downriver, on the move toward the Ohio River into Kentucky and on to Indiana. Now we know that lax regulation, and even laxer enforcement of those lax regulations, in a chemical/coal-industry-friendly-state where mountains are being blown up and thousands of valleys and creeks contaminated, is responsible for what happened there.

And they say this is good for jobs. And the reality is that so many people in West Virginia depend on these jobs in these dirty industries that events like this spark fears that they might lose them. WV has long been used like this. It’s poverty has been used and exploited. And so a magnificently beautiful state deals over and over again with horrific ecological destruction.

Old oil pipelines break and leak, from Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River to North Dakota to Mayflower, Arkansas. Trains carrying Bakken crude blow up in huge fireballs in Quebec and Alabama and, again, in North Dakota. Meanwhile, all of us who are living with TransCanada or Enbridge pipelines carrying heavy, corrosive dilbit (diluted bitumen – diluted with toxic chemicals) from the Alberta tar sands, or with tanker car trains carrying Bakken’s highly flammable light crude running through our neighborhoods, are being exposed to more and more danger.

Photo: Joan Shrout

Photo: Joan Shrout

The day after speaking at Milwaukee’s First Unitarian Society church on Sunday about the tar sands and the impacts of the transhipment network on Wisconsin, I read that the Warren Buffet-owned BNSF, the largest rail carrier of Bakken oil, wants to build a new parallel track along the Mississippi River to handle the growing supply. A lot of this track runs right along the river. The story indicates that some people in LaCrosse are expressing no small amount of concern about these plans.

Friends, our world is growing more toxic with every passing day. What can we do about this? Especially in an era where so many conservative state and local governments are more than happy to ease environmental protections for the corporations who buy their campaigns and then whose lawyers write legislation for them (think ALEC, for example), how can we push back to protect our land, water, and air?

One thing is to know the threats where you are. Another is to press for all the information you can get from the companies and public sources about the nature of the threats, the laws and regulations that apply, and do some serious inquiries. And another is to press legislators for stronger laws and protections. Still another is to know what practices ought not be allowed at all – like sending dilbit flowing through a 50-year-old pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac posing an extreme hazard to Lakes Michigan and Huron.

Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Photo: National Wildlife Federation

Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Photo: National Wildlife Federation

We can’t let dirty businesses run our legislatures and buy our governors and members of Congress without some pushback from the rest of us. As I’ve repeated often, the only way to beat big money is with lots and lots of people.

Incidents like the ones in WV, or in Mayflower or Casselton ND, give us openings for some serious advocacy around protecting our eco-communities. If they are not healthy, neither are we. If they are poisoned, so are we.

Meanwhile, this comes by way of Kentucky’s two rather unenlightened Senators, a proposal to establish “Economic Freedom Zones” that would allow companies to be exempt from environmental laws and regulations:

In December, Kentucky politicians proposed to “free” unemployed residents from environmental laws that protect their health and well-being.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his colleague Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill they call the “Economic Freedom Zones Act of 2013.” Among other things, the bill would exempt polluters in high-poverty regions from complying with (and would bar the U.S. EPA from enforcing) water pollution permitting requirements under Clean Water Act section 402. (Adding insult to injury, the two politicians are billing this proposal as an anti-poverty measure.)

You just can’t get much more cynical than that, can you?

The quality of life is eroding all across the nation. We have to enlarge the way we think of solidarity to include the health and well-being of our eco-communities. The trade-off between addressing poverty and addressing the environment is a false one. Always has been. This is not about jobs. It’s about exploitation for corporate profit.

People around Charleston WV just found out what it’s like to wake up one day and find that the water in your tap is poisoned. What matters more to us? Freedom Industries’ freedom to ignore environmental regulations, or healthy drinking water? Public policy decisions are getting to be just as basic as that.

Finally, I’m giving the last word to Eric Waggoner, chair of the English department at West Virginia Wesleyan College, who had a few choice words to say about the chemical spill in his home state. Sometimes rage is truly righteous.

I’m from West Virginia and I’ve Got Something to Say About the Chemical Spill



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