Monday, August 31, 2009

Choosing Between Poverty & Poison

I’m watching a re-run of CBS 60 Minutes’ piece on toxic e-waste sent to China. This quote from Jim Puckett of watchdog group Basel Action Network resonated:
“It’s a helluva choice between poverty and poison. We should never make people make that choice.”

Damn straight. It’s what we’re talking about when we discuss “environmental racism” and “eco-justice.” It’s also little different from how we are dealing with the toxic coal ash from last year’s Kingston Fossil Plant spill, save by degrees. Indeed, the toxic coal ash from Kingston is now being hauled to a landfill in economically depressed, predominantly African American Perry County, Ala. And it’s causing a rift in that community because we’ve basically asked those folks to make a choice we never should have burdened them with.

These stories always seem to follow the same pattern. On the one hand there is the lure of money and jobs:

A per-ton “host fee” that the landfill operators pay the county will add more than $3 million to the county’s budget of about $4.5 million.

The ash has created more than 30 jobs for local residents in a county where the unemployment rate is 17 percent and a third of all households are below the poverty line.

Money is great but short term profits are not worth long term environmental and health damage, say many in the community:

“I won’t feel comfortable,” wrote W. Compson Sartain, a columnist for The Perry County Herald, “until I see a delegation from E.P.A. and T.V.A. standing on the courthouse square, each member stirring a heaping spoonful of this coal ash into a glass of Tennessee river water this stuff has already fallen into, and gargling with it.”
(Sartain might be interested in United Mountain Defense’s challenge to “clean coal” pitchman/sport fisherman Jeremy Starks, as well.)

And, as always, there is a general lack of education and information about the risks:
Mr. Cureton reasoned that the ash, a byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity, could not be more dangerous than the remnants of the coal that heated his schoolroom growing up, or the ash his father, a farmer, sprinkled at the base of his fruit trees.

But coal ash from a power plant has a higher concentration of toxins because mercury, arsenic and other substances that are filtered out by air pollution controls end up in the ash. Since the spill in Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency has promised to issue new regulations for coal ash, potentially classifying it as a hazardous waste.

People like Mr. Cureton, who I have no doubt is sincere in his efforts to do the best for his community, are why issues of environmental racism and eco-justice are so pernicious. But I’d remind these people that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And if taking this coal ash waste were such a great thing, well, we’ve got some landfills here in Tennessee, in counties that could use those jobs and that money. Gotta ask yourself why we’re shipping it out of state to begin with.

Of course, none of this would be an issue if “clean coal” were as “clean” as the coal lobby likes to pretend.

I use the pronoun “we” for a reason in this post. Because this is our mess. We all created it, in our use electricity. Of course, we have few choices if we’re going to live a normal life in this culture. But there are things we can do. We can conserve. We can sign up for programs like TVA’s Green Power Switch. And some of us can help generate alternative fuels by putting solar panels on our roofs.

And maybe in this way we can bring some justice and jobs to our neighbors, instead of dumping our toxic trash on them.

Because we should never ask anyone to choose between poverty and poison so we can prosper and live in comfort.