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On refusing to be rounded out of existence

May 22nd, 2012 · No Comments

This guest post comes from James Wells who eloquently and passionately is outlining the detrimental implications of short-term thinking embrace of coal exports.

The phrase, arriving in the middle of a deeply technical presentation, stood out for everything it said in just one sentence.

“They’re just going to be rounded out of existence, because they are a small percent of the population.”

Dr. Frank James was providing information about adverse health effects from big carbon operations, in this case a coal export terminal in Alaska, and was answering a question about impacts on native American populations near such a terminal.  The problem is that the native Americans are relatively small in number in the area of the terminal, so their specific health issues might not be considered to be “significant” in the eyes of regulators or policymakers.  This is a huge issue in the eyes of Dr. James.

So wait!

Did I understand that correctly?!?!?!?

Beyond Human Scale

Yes, that’s right.  When considering a proposed mega carbon project such as any of the six coal export schemes targeting the northwest, a concern will only be evaluated if it is “significant” in the eyes of the agency, measured in terms like a large number of people severely affected.Have we, as people, shrank so much?  Or have the mega-projects just  grown so grotesquely large that human-scale concerns no longer show up on the scales of the deciders?

The ever-growing scale of big carbon projects has been presented as the new normal.  A necessity.  Just business as usual.  Who could be against “continuing” to meet the energy needs of the world?

Except it’s not “continuing”.  The inherent desperation of the wave of huge new carbon projects is captured in the aptly titled “The Race for What’s Left” by Michael Klare (new in Spring 2012).  Let’s be completely clear – the game has changed.  Big carbon exploitation is going to the ends of the Earth to squeeze and scrape energy and other resources out of the ground, at ever-increasing cost.  That’s cost as measured in many different ways.

Montana?  End of the earth?

If the place where you need the energy is China, then – Yes! The 6,000 mile supply line will spend the equivalent of 50% of the energy contained in the coal, just to get it to the place where it will be lit on fire.  That’s about as far away as you can get, and no different than drilling in deep arctic waters.  It’s all desperation, even as they desperately assure us that it’s just normal activity.

From the combination of massive scale and desperation, one of the most insidious things that results is, in effect, a bulldozer that runs right over individual concerns.  Who cares about your NIMBYs when so much is at stake?

“Insignificant” Elevation of Cancer Rates

A pretty crushing example of how the threshold of “significance” can be applied is the history of a study that was done on the Spokane WA rail yard.  The study clearly showed elevated rates of cancerin the vicinity of the rail yard, rates that dropped off toward normal the farther that you went from the yard.Despite this, the permitting authorities decided that this was not worth further study.  It was not “Significant.”  Oh, did I mention that the affected areas are poorer neighborhoods?

If you are the one who gets cancer, it’s pretty significant to you.

We are confronting this very issue as we prepare to provide public comments on the scope of the EIS to be conducted in response to the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal permit application.  What qualifies as “significant”?

Let’s try out this answer: Everything.

There is so much risk that very real concerns of real people could be rounded out of existence, if the concerns can be portrayed as small compared to the vast scale of the proposed project.

On Average

One method of airbrushing concerns away is to average impacts over large areas.  The pollutants from the coal piles, or other sources, may not increase the total level of particulate pollution in the region – on average.On average, I am as rich as Warren Buffet.

That kind of blurring has to be recognized and overcome, in relation to every impact.  What matters, of course, is not the average, but each one.  A child, who already has asthma, who lives next to the tracks, is significant, no matter what the average.  Dr. James explains further, in connection with the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that is used to guide permitting decisions:

The really difficult part about this EIS process is that the pollution is so dramatically local.  In the EIS process, those pollutants are often averaged over a much larger area, so that those most impacted are not really considered. Many of the studies about the impacts of railroad and major highways show that the closer you live to them the larger the impact on your health. It is true for cancer, heart disease, asthma, and other conditions.

What you might breathe
at a specific place and time

Another huge risk is that people might choose not to provide their input, if someone convinces them that their concerns don’t matter enough.News flash: We all are significant.  Every concern, no matter how local or apparently “small”, adds up to a devastating big picture.

Are we reading too much into a legal/permit term?  After all, presumably a permitting process needs to have some threshold of what it will consider.  Just because something is not “significant” in permit terms doesn’t mean the person or concern is not  actually significant.  Right?

This question illustrates a tricky thing.  Terminology from Permit-Land has a way of being interpreted back here in actual reality, using the meaning of the words in human terms.  If an issue is not “significant” in permit terms, the chances of the issue being addressed in the real world – well, they are slim to none.  Remember the people who are experiencing elevated cancer rates near the railyard in Spokane?  Want to see the list of things that have been done to protect their health since the finding?

That’s right.  Nothing.  Of course.  No protection.  No help.  Not significant.

All of this is going on in an environment where many of the things we value most are steadily being degraded.  As we observe this, let’s all please recognize all of these resources as more precious now than ever.  Our health.  Natural resources that belong to all of our descendants.  Our right to decide a healthy path forward for our community.

Let’s not let this dystopian vision, as described by Bob Simmons in Crosscut, come true.

if we damage a resource badly enough, for so long that it barely exists, then we can shrug it off in exchange for jobs and revenue.

If that sounds like the day that the last scraggly tree was cut down on the formerly
forested Easter Island, it’s not a coincidence.Of course, this is just one of so many cases, in so many areas, where people and their concerns are marginalized by the forces of mega.  Many other cases are more severe.  This, however, is our little corner of seeing it happen right here and right now, and our opportunity to stop it.

It’s critically important for all of us to make our voices heard with respect to any and all of the new big carbon schemes that represent the next phase of the accelerating and increasingly deadly Race For What’s Left.  The rapid increase we are seeing of world-spanning plans to sling huge piles of energy-containing materials from here to there – this just screams out that it’s time tothink again, think now, and think hard, rather than pretend it’s all normal.Choose your channels, there are many good ones.  Whether that’s through the regulatory process, such as our upcoming public comment period for Cherry Point, the spreadingCommunity Bill of Rights movements, other climate actions such as organized, or just talking to your friends – Now is the right time to be Here!

Any time you think that you don’t have a choice, you actually do.
Any time you think you have to do something that’s wrong, you don’t.

Our future – worth saving

Not Here.
Not Today.
Not Any More.
We Shall Not Participate in Our Own Destruction

Mine and terminal photos copyrightPaul K Anderson.

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Tags: China · coal · Energy · environmental · environmental economics · environmental justice