I often speak to my ESL students about democracy. Most of them don't really understand what we are all about (I'm not sure I know lately, either), and most of them are unrealistic about the US, loving us, or hating us too much. I am always pleased when I have an opportunity to demonstrate some of our professed values in action.
Back in December, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a series of articles about air pollution in Western Pennsylvania–how fine particulate in the air causes asthma, lung cancer, other lung diseases and heart disease. They told stories about the problems individuals and families living near our coal fired power plants have, and presented statistics showing a huge number of deaths above the national average from these causes. You can read the series here.
In order to keep the message alive a meeting was held at Chatham University, attended by me, my two students and several hundred others. The reporters gave an overview of the problem and several of the affected individuals told their horrifying stories—children suffering with asthma, proliferation of lung cancer deaths within their communities, well water polluted so that it was not only not drinkable, but caused skin rashes when they showered with it corroded pipes and faucets so badly they had to be replaced every two years.
I was hoping to show my ESL students that this is the way democracy should work. What did we learn? My Chinese student learned that the Chinese aren't the only ones with pollution problems. He was clearly impressed with that. My Russian student lived in Sweden for twenty years before coming here. I'm not sure what she learned. I learned, not for the first time, that our elected officials have no shame and don't care about what happens to their constituency, so long as the industry involved continues to support their tenure in office.
The lessons are clear: in the name of creating cheap power we allow the industry to be lax and shift the cost away from all of us and on to the backs of a few individuals who pay dearly. The most obvious lesson is the ineffectiveness of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which seems to be protecting only the companies creating the environmental problems.
All of this has to do with rectifying past sins, but we have learned nothing. The day after the meeting, the head of the Pennsylvania DEP announced that all permits and enforcement actions for Marcellus shale drilling would be issued by his office. We know he isn't concerned about air or water quality. His only concern is to give the gas drilling industry the greatest freedom possible. Pennsylvania is not taxing or taking any kind of removal fee. The only authority looking out for the public interest is the DEP and they sold out. See the links below for more information.
We haven't learned our lessons from air pollution, now we will poison our water supply.
This is the story I told during my fifteen minutes of fame at the Waffle Shop. But I made one mistake. The interviewer asked me what she could do and I talked about contacting elected officials. That's obviously hopeless. These college kids should be out marching in the streets, just like they are doing in the middle east. It's their water and their air we are poisoning. Because of my age and the fact that I already have heart disease, it won't matter so much to me; it should matter hugely to them. We have allowed our democracy to be sold to the highest bidder. Our children will pay more dearly for this than they will for the debt the Republicans are screaming about.
Ronni Bennett, at Time Goes By, has a wonderful post about the choices we face for our democracy. If you haven't read it, go there now.
Post-Gazette Air Pollution series