Dereliction of environmental duty

Three events in the last two days have helped me better understand why citizens are helpless against purposeful polluters and the damage they cause to our health.

At a town hall meeting in Pacific, Missouri on local environmental issues, the former director of the Missouri Dept of Natural Resources explained how the department has been decimated by layoffs and budget cuts. A decade ago there were six employees whose job it was to test the air quality in different parts of the state and file reports. That squad was cut to three members, and now there is only ONE person testing air quality throughout the state. Obviously, the air is not being tested in any specific area unless someone complains. Then the one DNR employee goes to that site.

Where the DNR used to have 2500 employees ,it now has 1500. And the most distressing part of the story is that the federal government has money available for states to do more of their own environmental studies and remediation of problems, but Missouri doesn’t take advantage of those funds. So this is what the “free market” extremists mean when they demand “states rights.”  They have the right to allow big polluters to foul our air, land and water. It’s not about we, the people, and our rights. It’s about the rights of big polluters.

So when Missouri politicians claim they are defending our “freedom” from government oppression and regulation, what they really mean is they want their friends and largest campaign contributors to be free to maximize profit at the expense of our health and safety. This is not only insidious and dishonest, it should be seen for what it is – – dereliction of duty and possible criminal behavior.

And that might be what’s happening in North Carolina. Just yesterday, the news broke that Duke Energy, the dirtiest of the dirty polluters, facing a federal criminal investigation, agreed to clean up the Dan River which they violated with thousands of gallons of toxic coal ash sludge. Of course the devil is in the details, and Duke will no doubt connive to avoid most of the expense and responsibility. What happened to North Carolina’s environmental resources department and Missouri’s DNR are not that different. Maybe it was a little more blatant in North Carolina because the governor was an employee of Duke for 28 years before taking office. He instructed the employees of the department not to worry too much about protecting people and natural resources. Their instructions were to make life as simple as possible for the polluters.

Back to Missouri. When money is tight for the DNR, the first employees to be laid off are the inspectors, but there is always money for the permit processors. These are the people who give permission to polluters to pollute, but with limits. Yes, I found that hard to believe too. Companies pay a small fee for permission to pollute the water we all depend on. Supposedly the limits are set at a “safe” level, but then there is is no way to monitor those levels because the inspectors were laid off. If this were a movie, it would seem too contrived.

Rachel Maddow on MSNBC is following the Duke Energy/filthy toxic sludge story. I wish she would come to Missouri because the plot lines are even more riveting. I joined a  handful of citizens this week who ventured to Jefferson City for a hearing on coal ash. Rep. Jeanne Kirkton of Webster Groves, who is a nurse by training, offered a resolution that would put more pressure on DNR to test the water around coal ash landfills. I went just to fill up a chair and be supportive of friends who planned to speak in favor of the resolution.

There were several items on the agenda before the coal ash one, so we had time to watch the Natural Resources and Tourism Committee in action. A hot breakfast was available for committee members, and the chair announced which lobbyist paid for it. There is no limit on the number of meals or treats a legislator can accept. In fact there are no campaign finance limits in Missouri thanks to repeal of that law a few years ago. Members really should wear badges advertising their sponsors like the NASCAR drivers do, but that’s another story.

The resolution that was introduced just prior to the one we were waiting for was a jaw dropper. The chair of the committee turned the meeting over to the vice chair and came down to the little table where people sit who want to address the august body. The committee members sit in lounge-type chairs behind a long desk on three levels like in a fancy theater. The item introduced by the chair asked the legislature to send a message to the US Congress that they need to tell the EPA to back off !!  Say what?  Back off?  The committee chair complained that EPA regulations were making it too hard for coal fired power plants to make a profit. Well, that’s what he really meant even if he didn’t say it quite that way.

John Hickey, Director of Missouri Sierra Club, went up to the little table and sat in the chair next to the man presenting the resolution. John always does a good job even though he knows he’s going to be vilified or worse by the defenders of Big Coal. There is solid evidence that exposure to coal combustion waste is harmful to our health, and John presented good information. He made the point that we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and gradually shift to solar and wind energy.

The first question he was asked was whether there is an exemption for bald eagles at the federal level. Anyone who isn’t up to speed on the progress being made by wind farms across the country might not know that birds sometimes get killed when they fly into the turbine blades. So I guess the subtext of the question was “Windmills are unpatriotic because they kill bald eagles.”  John said he wasn’t aware of any exemption for bald eagles. The rest of us just looked at each other with eyebrows raised.

Another legislator went on a little rant about how some people who don’t identify themselves as Sierra Club members but who really are members in secret come to his office and tell him a bunch of lies. He listed five or six ‘lies” he’s been told by these undercover commandoes. He asked John exactly how people become members of the Sierra Club (as if they are recruited at terrorist camps.) John’s answer was priceless. He said they pay an annual dues and can go to to sign up, hinting that the legislator might be smart enough to apply for membership online. The other reps had a good laugh over that.

Although I hadn’t planned on saying anything, I couldn’t let it pass that the coal-dependent legislators keep saying coal is the cheapest form of energy. No it’s not. Especially if you factor in the costs we all pay for the health problems created or worsened by exposure to fly ash and contaminated water. I’ve been trying to tell Sen. Claire McCaskill this for at least five years, but she doesn’t appear to want to go there.

So I spoke briefly about how I live downwind from the Labadie plant and how we all are absorbing the pollutants into our bodies. We are basically waste disposal guinea pigs for Ameren Missouri. I also added that I LOVE bald eagles but think people are more important. The only legislator who had a question for me tried to get me to agree that smoke from a power plant stack is no more harmful that that from a campfire. I didn’t fall for it. He then made a comment about needing manure to grow things or something. I thanked him politely and said I’d write that down. Several members of the committee laughed at that, and there were no more questions. After we left, the committee voted on the resolution, and I’m sure they passed it. If the Senate also passes it, the U.S. Congress will be asked to rein in the EPA on behalf of Missouri power plants. Egad.

A friend of mine who has been fighting Ameren for three years over the plan to build a coal ash landfill in the Labadie Bottoms (Missouri River floodplain) told me that some of the legislators she has talked to privately agree with her, but they say they dare not speak out for fear  the 25 lobbyists Ameren employs will descend on their offices en masse.

So this is what is happening every day, and I don’t know how to get citizens up in arms about it. We are all breathing air full of tiny particles of coal waste. The air may look cleaner than it did decades ago because we don’t have to deal with the black soot anymore. But the invisible pollutants are even more dangerous because they get way down in the smallest parts of the lungs.

At this point all we can do is join Sierra Club (website above) or help members of the Labadie Environmental Organization stop Ameren from building yet another coal ash dump in a floodplain. (   Why should we wait for a major spill?  The Missouri River provides drinking water downstream from Labadie. We could end up like those folks in Charleston, WV or Eden, NC having to buy bottled water to bathe in. We could be the next big national news story. Do we really want that?

We also need to lobby our reps and senators to pass one of the several campaign finance reform bills that have been introduced in Jeff City this year. To follow bills being debated this season, go to a site managed by St. Louis Public Radio to keep us informed.