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Thoughts of Springtime and Toxic Spills

Updated: Apr 7

In the realm of good news, bad news: I love the spring days beginning with the crazy chirping of birds outside my window, and that we can now take a walk after dinner without a flashlight. But the recent train wreck in East Palestine, just over the border with Ohio, and the chemical spill at a Bristol PA chemical plant, which leaked into a Delaware River tributary and sent Philadelphians into panic buying of bottled water, have me wondering what we should be doing differently.

I have discovered that when time is short, it's still possible to do something useful—but it's not pleasant. Putting pressure on our leaders by writing letters and making phone calls works. I've heard elected officials say these calls and letters point to the issues that folks care about. When they hear from enough voters, they pay attention.

Because I have signed up for various newsletters from environmental groups, I always find my in-box full of possible actions. If an action just requires me to sign on to a petition and decide if I want to make a donation or not—it takes two nanoseconds. But sometimes I'm moved to make those phone calls, and I hate it. I can speak in public, but making a call to an elected representative always sends me into a cold sweat, especially if actual persuasion might be involved.

Breaking it down into small steps gets me through it. I research the topic beyond the script that organizers usually provide, write down what I want to say, and then stutter through the call. It's often a bored staffer who dutifully records my ramblings. After years of doing this, it still happens exactly in this way, but I keep at it.

In recent years, I've shifted my focus to state-level decisions. At first I just had this general sense of frustration by the federal government's lack of action, and the notion that in other parts of the country, states were the ones pushing forward with environmental protections. So last summer I signed up with the Better Path Coalition, BPC, a state-wide group of activists advocating for the development of renewable energy. Through this involvement I've learned more about the consequences of our reliance on the fossil fuel industry.

Take Dimock, PA and its surrounding communities as one example. Residents there endured a 14-year fight against Cabot Oil & Gas (now Coterra Energy) over the methane leaks from drilling that contaminated their water supply and sickened many. After denying responsibility for so long, the company pleaded no contest last year in the face of 15 criminal charges and has agreed to build a new $16.2 million dollar water system in addition to paying residents' water bills for the next 75 years. Coterra Energy is still the most active fracking company in Pennsylvania.

At that time Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro (now governor) led this fight. So states can sometimes work to our benefit more readily than outside agencies. State environmental regulators often work with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA on environmental code, but the US constitution does not guarantee the right to a clean environment; however, Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that has introduced, and in our case, adopted a green amendment. Our legislation was originally enacted in 1971.

But progress is seldom smooth. According to The Green Amendment, The Fight for a Clean, Safe, and Healthy Environment, by Maya K. Van Rossum, subsequent court cases watered it down to the extent that the amendment became a mere policy suggestion. A later case, in which Van Rossum was an original petitioner, Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, 83 A.3d 901; decided in 2017, put our green amendment back on firm footing.

Robert McKinstry, Jr. and Harry Weiss write in a JDSupra article:

"The decision and its reaffirmance of duties to future generations could also call into question the General Assembly’s ability to block regulations implementing programs for the protection of trust resources, including regulations addressing climate disruption."

So that's good news, right? Well, maybe only in part, because industry never stands still. With Governor Shapiro's blessing, Pennsylvania and other parts of the country face the development of hydrogen hubs as an "environmentally friendly" way to generate power, but activists point out that this is hardly a green solution.

According to a BPC brief:

"It all adds up to more drilling and fracking and more climate-killing methane leaks. Shapiro is not oblivious to the problem of methane leaks, he noted later in his address when he talked about using a lighter to ignite the methane leaking from an abandoned well he visited."

This means that the need to stay vigilant never ends. We will always want to empower economic development, but we must keep our eyes on the science—ignorance is definitely not bliss. Just ask the residents of Dimock, Philadelphia, or East Palestine after toxins have fouled their air, water, and soil.

Before I close out this post, I want to return to the positive. Clearly not all willingly sell out future generations to make a profit. I've recently met several business owners in the Philadelphia area who engage in sustainable practices and are working to build a circular economy where all materials are repurposed or recycled. They are an inspiration, and I look forward to sharing more about them in the future, but for now, let us keep paying attention to who we elect and what they're actually doing with the power we invest in them.

Please consider joining a local or state organization to do the work that will protect future generations. Then, with the knowledge that you're doing your bit, go enjoy the bird song and the hum of bees around spring flowers. After all, we protect what we love.

Here are a few worthy organizations: (works at community, state, and federal levels)

Or if your heart is set on working at the national level, Citizens' Climate Lobby has local chapters and lobbies within congressional districts.

What actions make a difference in your world?

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