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Which way is it going to be, Joe?
Nobody has benefitted from the vilification of the Environmental Protection Agency more than West Virginia’s former governor and current junior senator, Joe Manchin, who famously in a campaign ad managed to belittle that agency and appease the gun rights people in one shot, putting a bullet through a facsimile of the cap and trade bill. Upon obtaining office, he sued the Obama administration to overturn new federal rules on mountaintop removal mining, the unspeakably destructive practice that is destroying the landscapes, rivers, aquifers, and communities of the coal fields.
In response to the Jan. 9 poisoning of the Charleston area water system, Joe apparently has had an epiphany, “Today I’m asking all West Virginians, the EPA, the CDC, the West Virginia DEP and all those involved to join me in pledging to make sure the water in the Kanawha Valley is the cleanest and safest in America.”
Say what, Joe?
Given the enormity of the disaster still playing out in Chemical Valley, Manchin’s new insight is surely welcomed, but dramatically illustrates the mindset that has historically driven him and tragically millions of voters around the nation.
Environmental disasters like this are the reason that in 1970, under widespread public pressure, a reluctant President Richard Nixon signed into law the most sweeping environmental legislation in our nation’s history. It included the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Under new regulatory requirements placed on corporations, municipalities and the government itself, rivers began to run cleaner and fish stocks and other wildlife populations rebounded.
But in his inaugural address in 1981, Ronald Reagan told the American people that, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem”. This simple, powerful phrase was one of the most politically potent expressions of our era. It overwhelmed Nixon’s actions and spawned a generation of voters and elected officials who are hostile to the idea that government is an essential hedge on the reckless, indifferent, and in some cases malevolent actions of corporations. Public opinion, largely as a result of the Reagan proclamation, has shifted dramatically and ominously.
The prevailing meme, often articulated by Manchin and other contemporary figures, goes like this, “Coal is vital to the economy. Environmental regulations restrict its mining, preparation, conveyance and use. Therefore, we should reduce or eliminate environmental regulations.”
The preservation of the environment has shifted from becoming a near-universal necessity to a scourge hanging over commerce and “progress.”
This spill happened, and more will happen, because the chemical and coal companies can do virtually anything they want. Jobs are scarce, making people desperate and docile, fearful to do anything that pushes the companies out. In their desperation, voters are consistently voting against their own economic well-being and physical health.
This spill is indicative of a systemic problem and is the inevitable result of a new culture of acquiescence to industry, to the big corporations that willingly sacrifice rivers, wildlife, forests and people in the name of profits.
The results, as we have seen, can be catastrophic. But as bad as this calamity has been, it is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We’re told that 10,000 gallons of MCHM were spilled into the Elk River. Perhaps 10 percent entered the public water supply. That’s 1,000 gallons. This was enough to cripple a water supply system for 300,000 people. How much of this stuff is used annually throughout the coal fields — 100,000 gallons? 500,000 gallons? 1,000,000 gallons? Does anybody know? What becomes of all of it? What happens to it when it is used for its intended purpose? Does it break down, either with other chemicals, into benign stuff? Does it biodegrade on its own? Where does it go? In massive waste impediment ponds? Is it injected underground? What happens to the aquifers? And this is one chemical we’re talking about.
Anyone who argues we are over-regulated seriously must have a death-wish. What sort of Orwellian hell-world have we molded for ourselves where protection of our environment is so grandly denigrated? How many of us yearn for polluted rivers or filthy air? How many additional, preventable cancers do we seek?
Tragically, many have swallowed the poison (so to speak) that environmental protection is bad for the economy and EPA is the culprit. It’s a Faustian bargain, as there has never been an instance of environmental degradation that wasn’t ultimately cheaper and less painful to prevent than to remediate. Sen. Manchin must understand that environmental protection is good — nay, essential to a vibrant economy, and begin changing the mindset that disparages it. Once you’ve ruined your environment, you have nothing, essentially forever.
We all depend upon a clean environment. Fresh air and clean water must be a birthright of every American, regardless of his or her home.
— Michael Abraham is a businessman and published author. He lives in Blacksburg, Va.