If I could recommend just one book for you to read in the next six months, it would be Celine-Marie Pascale’s Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life. Pascale is a professor of sociology at American University in Washington, DC. A major part of her research for this book involved interviewing Americans from what she calls the “struggling class” in communities across America—from inner-city Oakland to Ohio’s Athens County to the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota to Central Appalachia. The book is an eye-opener from beginning to end, but for today’s segment of this series I want to focus on what Pascale calls “sacrifice zones.”
One of the big campaign talking points of Republican candidates is deregulation. Unfortunately, though, this is more than a talking point. It’s something Republicans have been serious about acting on whenever possible. Their free-market ideology includes the hare-brained notion that everything is better when corporations are allowed to self-regulate. Granted, some regulations are excessive, but most are not. Most regulation exists to keep corporations from doing what corporations are programmed to do—make a profit in any way that is legal (and sometimes when it is illegal), regardless of the human or environmental costs. Economists refer to these costs with the harmless-sounding euphemism “negative externalities.” But let’s talk about some of these far-from-harmless externalities.
Pascale introduces her chapter on sacrifice zones with this statement: “If it seems surprising to find a chapter on environmental contamination in a book about families trying to make ends meet, consider that the most toxic environments in the country are consistently those that struggling families call home. This isn’t an accident, and it can profoundly affect the health and well-being of residents.” She gives many examples, but I’ll focus on just a couple here to illustrate the point that government and corporations often collude to harm the lives of individuals, especially those who do not have the influence or means to fight back—all for the sake of profit.
Republicans, especially Trump, have made coal mining the poster child of the GOP, bemoaning the loss of jobs that have disappeared largely because cleaner energy is also now a lot cheaper. But coal mining creates massive negative externalities for the local populations. “Sludge or slurry is the name for toxic waste created when coal is washed to separate it from rocks and dirt. The slurry is a mix of rock, water, and mud that carries arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and selenium—for starters. . . . Coal mining generates millions of tons of slurry each year and coal industries use the cheapest way of handling it, which is to build containment ponds. Because ponds are not lined, these heavy metals inevitably seep into groundwater and local waterways; and, of course, the dams holding the ponds fail with some regularity” (86). One breach in West Virginia in March 2017 spilled 5,400 gallons of slurry into Drawdy Creek, which polluted the drinking water of everyone in St. Albans and Lincoln counties. “Studies . . . consistently find that residents of West Virginia’s mining counties were more likely than folks in non-mining communities to suffer from cancer, kidney disease, obstructive lung diseases, birth defects, high blood pressure, and a shortened life span.”
Coal power plants not only put harmful chemicals in the air, but burning coal creates coal ash, which has the same heavy metals as coal slurry. The cheapest way to deal with it is to mix it with water and store it in ponds. In 2008, the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee had a retaining wall collapse, which “released more than a billion gallons of toxic material into two rivers. The disaster . . . cost the federal government over one billion dollars to clean up. Regulations to secure coal ash waste were finally implemented in the Obama years but were rolled back by the Trump administration” (87). We might ask why such regulations would be rolled back. The answer is that this is simply what Republicans do. Government is evil, so we need to get government out of the way of corporate profit. Community health is not an issue at all with Republicans.
The second example comes from oil production, another extractive industry that has bought many politicians. In recent years, oil production in the North Dakota Bakken fracking fields, 160 miles from the Standing Rock Reservation, has increased 600 percent, leading to an increase in environmental disasters. “Between 2006 and 2014 an estimated 5.9 million gallons of oil were spilled in North Dakota, along with 11.8 million gallons of fracking wastewater called brine. While ‘brine’ might sound harmless—like something you’d use for making pickles—it isn’t. Fracking brines contain over 200 toxins including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, lead, and mercury. All of which have harmful impacts on health, ranging from lowered IQ levels and behavioral issues in children, to kidney, brain, and central nervous system damage in adults” (93). Fracking brine also contains radioactive contaminants, such as radium-226 and radium-228, which are linked to bone marrow and lung cancers.
“At Standing Rock, the Keystone Pipeline System [which Republicans have again used as a rallying cry against regulation] offers one more example of collusion between business and government at the expense of people and the environment” (94). This is a system of three pipelines that carry oil from tar sands over thousands of miles. “Tar sands, which are thicker, more acidic, and more corrosive than conventional crude oil, make pipelines prone to leaking. . . . The original Keystone pipeline commissioned in 2010 runs 1,600 miles from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. It has a long history of spills and leaks, including nearly 400,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota wetlands in 2019. The Keystone XL also runs from Canada to the Gulf Coast by a slightly different route. In its first year of operation it had twelve leaks that resulted in significant oil spills, one of which poured almost 407,000 of crude oil into the ground” (94). The third Keystone pipeline is the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). It runs 1,200 miles from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois, passing through South Dakota and Iowa. Originally, it ran through wealthier white communities, but in 2016, because people in Bismarck complained, it was rerouted through historic and sacred sites in the Standing Rock Reservation. When the Standing Rock Sioux protested peacefully, they were met with a militarized response from the National Guard and private security forces who “used tear-gas, pepper spray, tasers, water cannons, rubber bullets, and dogs against protesters” (96).
“In September 2016, President Obama vetoed the pipeline construction, citing the pervasive threats to ecosystems, drinking water sources, and public health. Kelcy Warren, the billionaire head of Energy Transfer Partners that developed the pipeline, donated more than $720,000 to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and upon entering office Trump immediately signed an executive order reversing the Obama decision. . . . Since 2016, at least seventeen states have introduced legislation to criminalize pipeline protests” (96–97).
Of course, nowhere in this discussion is there any mention of global warming and the desperate need we have of transitioning away from fossil fuels, particularly those that are toxic to the environment in addition to putting massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But as discussed in an earlier post in this series, Republicans are still determined to delay any response to human-caused climate change, even as climate catastrophes continue to exceed the scientists’ predictions.
In a post dated February 21, 2021, I wrote about the movie Dark Waters, based on the true story of Rob Bilott as detailed in the New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” (January 6, 2016). The movie and the article depict how DuPont knowingly dumped highly toxic PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acids) into a stream that provided drinking water to tens of thousands of people who eventually forced DuPont to settle for $671 million. This is just another example of what happens when government allows corporations to “self-regulate,” which generally means not regulating their harmful behavior at all. But this is the world our current Republican Party want to perpetuate.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other ways corporations make life miserable or dangerous to their employees, customers, and society in general. There are inhumane working conditions, starvation wages, lack of health insurance, tax evasion, and dangerous products. All of this needs to be regulated, because if it is not, corporations will do whatever they can get away with in order to make a profit. And the Republican Party wants to simply get out of their way.