Earth Day is Every Day
April 21, 2013
Its time to criminalize pollution!
A Special GreenWatch Essay
by Jay Burney
Earth Day 2013. Why are we celebrating?
-Friend Sandra Steingrabber is in Chemung County jail, sentenced for and act of civil disobedience against the oil and gas industry that threatens to turn land and water in New Yorks Finger Lakes into an Armageddon that will visit future generations for what may be the rest of human time.
-Three years ago this week BP turned the Gulf of Mexico into one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of the planet. Because of the way the media reports this, many think that this disaster was nothing more than a “spill” and that BP has cleaned up the coast and brought economic prosperity to the citizens and economies dependent upon the resource that was once an ecologically vibrant heart of planet earth. Today, according to many independent science sources, the Gulf is a contaminated and unproductive ecosystem. Like so many other of earth’s bountiful resources, sacrificed to the political exigencies of economic profit for the few.
-How about the Great Lakes? Recent evidence of cumulative physical, chemical and biological threats shows that a host of positive feedback loops are contributing to increasing ecological instability.
Combined threats including legacy and new industrial toxics, poorly designed and inadequate infrastructure including the uncontrolled and legal release of tens of millions of gallons of untreated sewerage, agricultural runoffs laced with toxic chemicals and fertilizer and pesticides, growing effects of climate change, and invasive species.
Algae blooms and Lake Erie Dead Zones resulting from increased precipitation linked to agricultural practices and climate change are getting some attention but not enough.
A relatively newly discovered plastics debris zone in Lake Erie more than rivals in density growing plastic patches in our oceans. The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch” just one of many in the Pacific, Antarctic, and Atlantic is more than twice the size of Texas. These ocean debris fields are huge vortex zones where plastics debris accumulate in recirculation gyres. These zones cause tremendous ecological damage and, as the plastics break down into microscopic particles, are ingested by fish and other wildlife, and humans. It is being newly discovered that these microplastics act like sponges that attract PCB’s, and PAH’s which are also know as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS). They can stay in the environment for over 50 years and bioaccumlate, or move up the food chain becoming more concentrated at each level. They are entering our bodies and there is evidence that they can be found in our brain cells and our spinal columns.
As humans increase their dependency on plastics and chemicals, The Great Lakes, which account for more than 20% of the earth’s fresh water, are rapidly vanishing as a safe drinking resource. This does not mean that they are or will not remain a profitable commodity, because industry will find a way to make private money from this once shared public resource. Earlier this month Nestle Co. Chair Peter Brabeck declared that water is the most important raw material in the world and as such must be privatized and must not be considered a human right, but a commodity. He says, “Only extremists believe that water is a human right”. This is what is here. This is what is coming.
A few years ago in their book Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, former New York Times chief environmental reporter Philip Shabekoff and his wife, the widely accomplished family and consumer activist Alice Shabekoff, investigated and chronicled how our economic policies have submerged our planet in a thickening haze of toxic soup. It tells how most of these poisons that have been made for profit come into our bodies via little studied exposure routes. It tells us that today in the United States one in three children are born sick. Most of these children will endure lifelong consequences of disease.
The book comprehensively describes the health effects of exposure to industrially “produced for profit” toxics. The book details health consequences that include a widening array of birth defects, cancers, asthma, obesity, diabetes, mental and behavioral abnormalities, and other serious illnesses.
The author’s research shows that the blood of newborns contain traces of nearly 300 synthetic chemicals. Milk from virtually every mother on the planet contains high levels of dozens of man-made poisons. Breast milk by almost all accounts is superior to other infant food, but the increase of toxins in breast milk is alarming. Other researchers have estimated that each human on the planet may contain traces of at least 700 human made toxins.
According to the National Cancer Institute, half of all men and women living today will have cancer at sometime in their lives. One-eighth of all women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. These diseases are strongly linked to man-made toxins and environmental exposures.
Sandra Steingraber, besides being a magnificent anti fracking activist, is a teacher, scientist, author, and parent. She is also a cancer survivor- a cancer linked to drinking water contamination. She has written several books including Living Downstream, and in her most recent book, Raising Elijah, which is about her son, she describes how at least 200 known brain poisons are allowed to flow freely in our economy.
She reminds us that under the Cheney/Bush administration the oil and gas industry, -the fracking industry, were granted ongoing exemptions under the “Halliburton Loophole” or the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Exemptions include Clean Water Act, The Safe Water Drinking Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act, the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. America’s worst polluters are exempted from America’s most potent environmental laws in the name of profit.
Steingraber also reminds us that the Toxics Chemical Act of 1976, which the NY Times recently characterized as weak- Has provided for the study of only 200 of the over 80,000 known man made toxic substances, and that in no case does the TCA suggest that there are links with any of these 200 substances to human health Issues. Instead the “talking points” of industry and media are served with language indicating no known health links and that the materials are completely safe. Steingraber says that our economic politics promotes toxic substances to exist in our economic economy.
There are indicators all around us that we are failing, and failing rapidly. You may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a rapidly spreading spectrum of diseases killing honeybees, which pollinate our food supply. CCD is both an economic and human health disaster. CCD continues to increase with this last winter being worse than any previously reported. CCD is linked to the wide variety of chemicals that honeybees are exposed to- pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, soaps, solvents, paints, plastics, and many thousands of other toxins found in our environment. Exposure vectors include drinking water, pollen, plant material, soil, air, and notably, GMO’s. Honeybees are the tip of the iceberg. All insects, all wildlife, all humans are on the path to a vanishing future.
On earth today we are in what many scientists are referring to as the Sixth Great Extinction. It is a rapidly escalating extinction with 200 species on earth, vanishing every day, including today. Clearly some organisms, notably bacteria which make up over 90% of human volume, can and are adapting quickly. That does not mean that they need human bodies to survive.
What can you do?
Steingrabber says that a heroic narrative is a substantial one. Against all odds, it is possible that standing up can make a difference. Every person has the opportunity to have a heroic narrative in their lives, and so when our children ask- Are we going to die, it is the beginning of a heroic narrative to say, No- I am on the job, I will help make a difference.”
It is easy to throw up ones hands and say, “What can we possibly do?” The answer should be contextualized by “what are we willing to do?”
We live in a culture and society where our personal choices are limited by our fossil fuel dependence, our agricultural policies and practices and our ultimate dependence on consuming products that are across the board, demonstrably dangerous at every level manufacture, use, and disposal. If you want to be an activist, for the most part it is difficult to escape limited choices. We can make a difference by making consumer choices regarding energy, waste disposal, transportation, food, products, and consumables, but the choices are currently somewhat limited. Paper or plastic remains the standard for enlightened social choices. This is not enough to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have a quality of life legacy that will allow us to say we did all that we could.
That is not to say that many are not engaged. Many are. Many people spend lots of time and energy in this fight and this is a bandwagon that is worth getting on.
The recent success in New York by the WNY Clean Air Coalition in fighting Tonawanda Coke’s egregious malfeasance in releasing benzene into an urban neighborhood is a flag waiver. NYS DEC, with the assistance these citizen activists discovered that benzene levels in the air near Tonawanda Coke were 75 times greater than New York allows. Benzene is linked to blood cancers, including Leukemia, Lymphoma and Multiple Myelomas.
But the company, and other polluters are protected still. Defending the emissions, Attorneys for Tonawanda Coke point to “other sources of air pollution that include the release of Benzene”, many of them permitted under the law. This will make linking specific victims to specific perpetrators for financial recovery difficult.
In early April, Judith Enck, USEPA Region Two Administrator told Channel 4 News in Buffalo that while she applauds the work of the Clean Air Coalition “The Tonawanda Coke facility is still releasing large amounts of pollutants” and that “shutting down the plant right now is not in the picture”. She also said that Tonawanda Coke will be “carefully watched to make sure that they comply with the law.” Some releases of deadly toxics into the environment are legally permitted. U.S Attorney General Dennis Hochul, who is trying to establish a “Super Fund” for Tonawanda Coke victims, says that it will be difficult to prove a direct relationship between victims and the company, because there are other sources of Benzene out there.
“Permissible under the law” is a fundamental issue. No one will argue that the standards under which permits for pollution are issued have become more restrictive since 1970 with such laws as Title V of the Clean Air Act that stipulates emissions permitting focusing on increased air quality standards. But releases are still permitted. Zero emissions are not on the near horizon. Across the spectrum of economic development, pollution in the name of profit is permitted. This includes legal air releases of Benzene and hundreds if not thousands of other cancer causing substances to the air and waters that we all depend on. Today, all regulations including and especially environmental regulations, are under attack by those that want to eliminate them, -period.
We are encircled by the toxic soup
Virtually every aspect of our economy and our way of life depends on the creation and release of toxins as parts of products and product production including food, clothing, buildings, cosmetics, soaps, and urban infrastructure. In an important book published in 2010
Poisoned for Profit describes how these toxic products enjoy a complicated and dense web of legal protections. It details how private sector money has purchased highly paid lobbyists, scientists for hire, politicians, and policy makers to trick the public, often working secretly and behind the scenes, and almost always providing no accountability. It shows how legal and marketing strategies of gaming of the regulatory and safety systems has allowed the modern plague of profitable poisons.
In our current economic system, the costs of the consequences to the environment and to society, such as the vanishing of bees and biodiversity and the costs of treating human illnesses are considered “externalities” which are to be borne by the overall society. These costs are corporate entitlements, which are borne by taxpayers and individuals, and not the producers of the toxins. These corporate profiteers reap vast economic benefit without regard to the consequential health and other impacts of that profit taking on society. This is true in Tonawanda, and it is true across the globe. Our political economic system allows pollution for profit. It is time that we start looking at the criminalization of pollution.
It is important to note, as Earth Days come and go, that many organizations and individuals work hard every day and understand that every day is earth day. Steingrabbers focus on heroic narrative is substantiated right here in WNY. Besides the Clean Air Coalition, it is important to note other flag-wavers that use Earth Day as an opportunity to educate, inform, and engage.
Among others, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers efforts to bring out the local community to use Earth Day as a vehicle to help clean up local ecosystems and natural areas including Times Beach Nature Preserve on Buffalo’s waterfront is an important engagement vehicle. There are a growing number of individuals and organizations in WNY working hard every day. This is something to be proud of for sure.
But I am not ready for a “celebration” of Earth Day. That said, our current work, measured by the realities that we face on a degrading planet, prove that our work has not been enough.
It doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to realize that Earth Day was long ago compromised by corporations and monied institutions looking to cynically greenwash their own tarnished actions, pitting economic development against ecological conservation, preservation, and a green future that represents something other than pure profit. It does take some significant brainpower and risk to break away from that worldview. In the world we currently politically support, the bottom line of sustainability is economics. In the real world that we live in and must find a way to help survive, the bottom line is the environment. This is a critical viewpoint that we need to adopt across the board. It will help us move ahead with our work to conserve, protect the environment and move toward a future that is sustainable for everyone.
The radical choice this Earth Day is to demand that we stop legitimizing pollution in the name of economic development. It is killing us. We must ban fracking. We must invest in green infrastructure so that we can stop pollution. We must understand that a focus on an energy crisis, and an overwhelming environmental crisis, is really a consumption crisis. We must not allow the continuous manufacture of poisons for every product, including food, that sustains a continuous economic growth model that is killing us. We must change our consumer paradigms. We must fight for the future. Our lives and the lives of future generations depend upon this.
Importantly must do this peacefully because the first rule of sustainability is peace.
Like Ghandi’s Salt Satyagraha, we must radically alter our strategies and use the love of life to protect the lives of those that will come after us. Speaking out is important and even fundamental. Civil disobedience and direct action are options open to all of us.
The radical choice is to break out of the opiate slumber, politicize ourselves to the point where we can challenge the status quo, and try to make a consequential difference. Remember this Earth Day- Sandra Steingrabber is in the Chemung County Jail standing up to the oil and gas industries continued aggression on our planets and our lives. Sandra says that at this very moment she is yelling at the iron doors that contain her. Can you hear her? She is doing this for love. She is doing this for us. Let us make sure that her love is not shared in vain.