Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Out of sight and out of mind shouldn’t mean out of luck

Disliking lawyers is a favorite pastime of Americans. Even so, it may be that the more lawyers a community has, the safer it is from dirty industries and the negative health effects they bring.

Lawyers tend to cluster in large, wealthy communities because that's where the work is. So when projects that produce industrial waste are proposed that could threaten those communities, they have plenty of lawyers around who know how to pull the strings of power to defeat them or minimize their impacts.

Smaller and poorer communities more often than not are out of sight and out of mind of both the politicians and the lawyers who could help protect them. Yet, like any community, they need protection from industry emissions and from the cumulative environmental effects that can pile up as polluting industries locate in the same "friendly" neighborhoods.

The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration recently revived an interagency environmental justice task force that had been dormant for many years, and is instructing regional offices to seek the opinions of "disadvantaged" people who may not be represented in the EPA's process when considering permits for polluting industries.

Even though the moves have not been received well by industry representatives, who have called them "anti-business," it's the right path for the EPA.

If the Environmental Protection Agency does not look to protect both people and the environment, who will? Surely not industry, whose stock prices soar higher as costs, particularly the costs of emissions prevention, waste storage and water protection, sink lower.

It's a sad truth that when poor communities are faced with a choice between no jobs and pollution-belching industries, they too often choose jobs over health.

It's part of the EPA's job to make sure they don't have to make that choice.

With the help of Congress, it's the EPA's job to force industries to install emissions and waste controls to ensure that people don't have to make your-money-or-your-life choices when faced with finding ways to support their families.

It's the EPA's job to make sure people don't find out about the poisonous effects of pollution after the harm's been done.

It's no accident that polluting industries are located in places whose populations are woefully uninformed, lack jobs and are politically passive.

The move by the EPA to try to ensure that such communities are not exploited and harmed by new or cumulative effects of heavy industry should be welcomed, not feared. Properly executed, EPA initiatives can create even playing fields for industry while protecting the air and water essential for all life.

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