January 22, 2014

PESNER: The Necessity of Environmental Protections

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One of the scariest things that can happen to a society is losing something that people take for granted. But for 300,000 West Virginians, that’s exactly what happened two weeks ago when the tap water in nine counties was declared unsafe to use. Residents of these areas could no longer shower, brush their teeth or cook their meals without putting their health at risk. This led to chaos as schools and public buildings were closed and there wasn’t enough bottled water to go around.

The contaminants in the water came from a leak at a plant run by Freedom Industries, which makes chemicals used in the production of coal. The chemical and coal industries employ about 90,000 people in West Virginia.

Clearly, the people of West Virginia have a vested interest in keeping these two industries stable and profitable. However, they also have a vested interest in protecting their own health and avoiding chemical spills such as the one this month. This inevitably breeds conflict between those who support tighter environmental controls and those who support maximizing the number of jobs.

West Virginia used to be a reliably Democratic state. It had, and still has, a higher than average poverty rate and a high rate of union membership, which are constituencies normally favoring the Democratic Party. However, West Virginia increasingly favors Republicans over Democrats because West Virginians believe that Republicans care about protecting their jobs while Democrats prioritize protecting the environment. The Republicans have argued that President Obama has pursued a “War on Coal” and West Virginia responded by voting overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney. The people of West Virginia have come to see government threatening their livelihoods through expanding environmental regulations.

However, these environmental regulations might have been able to stop a disaster affecting the water supply had they been more stringent. These regulations do not have to be burdensome; they could be as simple as requiring more frequent and thorough inspections. This plant had not been inspected since 1991. Or, the government could mandate that plants like this employ more stringent safety protocols which may have detected this leak or limited its damage.

As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Clearly, no one wanted the contamination to happen, but no one did enough to prevent it either. The company did not follow adequate procedures, regulators did not pay enough attention to what was going on and the various levels of government didn’t demand that appropriate precautions were taken. Environmental protections would have saved everyone a whole lot of trouble, a whole lot of time and a whole lot of money.

In fact, this incident proves how environmental regulations can be good for business. It’s a sure bet that the president of Freedom Industries wishes that he’d taken more precautions to prevent a leak like this. Last Friday, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy. Additionally the government probably didn’t want FEMA to need to spend millions of dollars getting thousands of gallons of clean, bottled water to the area and cleaning up the mess. And that’s not even mentioning the 300,000 rightfully angry constituents.

This incident shows that we need to find a way to enact regulations which would ensure the protection of the environment, a resource on which we all depend. Conservatives need to realize that environmental protection is not about being antagonistic to business, but that it actually provides a necessary function for the maintenance of our society. This applies particularly to West Virginia because of the increased risks associated with their reliance on dirty industries such as mining. There can be some middle ground that both maximizes public health and safety while not threatening to leave people unemployed.

Protecting the American people is the single most important function of our government, and that definitely applies to environmental regulations. While the Democratic Party has long advocated for increased protections, we, as a nation, cannot just abandon the red states to environmental ruin. In order to truly protect our environment for everyone, we must convince conservative people that their well-being is tied up with the environment. Only then can we enact the environmental policies that we need. Maybe then a disaster like the chemical spill in West Virginia can be prevented in the future.