The Dark Side of Deregulation: The Fight for America’s Health
July 27, 2011 - 3:35pm ET
Last week, in our series “Ignorance Index: Conservative Dogma Vs. The Facts,” Campaign for America’s Future’s Co-Director Robert Borosage eviscerated the logic (or lack thereof) that Republicans have used for years to justify the rapid deregulation of business. The GOP claims that regulation kills job creation because business owners feel too constrained to take on new employees.
But for years corporations have actually been able to run wild, effectively evading the government’s lackluster attempts to safeguard Americans. As a result, a less regulated economy has reaped enormous benefits for Wall Street while stripping the living wages of Main Street:
It appears that Republicans will not stop until they can, as Grover Norquist famously said, ‘drown government in a bathtub.’ But this deregulation isn’t just killing jobs; it is also killing and maiming people.
Nowhere is this playing out so obviously than in the hills of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, where coal mining companies have taken up the highly destructive practice of mountaintop mining with valley fills. Mountaintop mining is done by cutting down highly biodiverse forest, stripping the topsoil and then using explosives to break up the ground to reach buried strands of coal. Excess rock called mine “spoil” is pushed down into valley streams adjacent to the blast sites, burying them in the process. After the coal companies have plundered the land for the coal they seek, the companies try to cover up the environmental havoc through “reclamation,” which basically amounts to planting some shrubs and grass and calling it a day.
As you might expect, mountaintop mining has serious consequences for the surrounding environment. “Spoil” flows alter natural water run-off processes, increasing the risks for downstream flooding. Moreover, the runoff from the blast sites carries with it high levels of toxic substances. Streams display elevated acidity and electrical conductivity, among other things, all of which causes high numbers of fish to be deformed and spoils local food chains. Above water, the air around mountaintop removal sites is filled with chemical-infused dust.
Humans are not immune to these deleterious results. Quite the contrary, runoff from the blast sites leaks into the domestic water supply and local residents breathe in that same air laced with toxic compounds. We already know from scientific studies that coal mining is associated with higher levels of chronic pulmonary disorders, high blood pressure, lung cancer, heart and kidney disease, and early mortality. Moreover, coal production is associated with health problems in both men and women, importing that one does not have to be working in the coal mines to be exposed to the harmful effects of this business.
Now, a new study from researchers at the University of West Virginia shows that mountaintop mining may not just be harming people who have lived near mining sites over sustained periods of time, but there is actually a strong association between this mining method and birth defects. Using data from 1996-2003, the scientists were able to trace a correlation between increased use of mountaintop mining over time and circulatory, respiratory and musculoskeletal defects among live births in the study area counties. They also found that there was a spacial relationship, meaning that mothers living in the vicinity of mountaintop mining activity were more likely to have children with birth anomalies. Heart malformations, holes in the children’s windpipes, buildup of fluid in the brain— all of these problems were significantly more pronounced in babies born in these areas than in places where non-mountaintop mining occurred or where mining was not taking place at all.
All of this brings up serious questions. What price are we willing to pay in order to continue to use energy resources in the ways that we currently do? Are the minimal jobs created from mountaintop mining worth the complete destruction of surrounding environmental and public health? Have we reduced ourselves to questioning whether it is morally acceptable to sacrifice public health in a depressed economy? And, perhaps applicable to both sides of the aisle, is this deregulated, hyper-polluting jobs industry really part of the future that we want to leave the next generations, especially if those generations are now being scarred with the direct after effects of such industry profitability?
Now, one would think that the government strongly regulates mountaintop mining and other coal production activities, especially since the Republicans like to scream about oppressive government whenever they get the microphone. In this instance those individuals would only be a little bit correct. Here is the scoop: The Clean Water Act and its connected regulations dictate that spoiling streams with coal site runoff should be “avoided.” The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act requires that such runoff not degrade stream quality. Beyond this, there has been little attempt to prevent the results of coal mining.
And this plays directly into the hands of the GOP, who now feel sufficiently emboldened to cut away at some of the last barriers protecting humans and the environment from mountaintop mining. In the House, Reps. John Mica (R-FL) and Nick Rahall (R-WV) have introduced the ambiguous sounding Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act (H.R. 2018), which would, among other things, prevent the EPA from enacting new clean water standards unless invited to do so by the state. Anyone familiar with the Appalachian states know full well that they have long histories of leniency towards coal companies, so the resolution is a full-blown attempt to stymie important and sensible regulations.
But Mica and Rahall want to go even further: under H.R. 2018 the EPA could no longer enforce the Appalachia water standards it put in place last year and would no longer have veto power over the granting of mining permits by other governmental agencies ignorant of potential water pollution.
Even if we accept that these representatives have next to zero interest in environmental affairs, it is horrifying to see lawmakers move forward with a policy that condones practices that squelch out the lives of unborn children and condemn them to lives of disability.
And these conservatives call themselves “pro-life.”
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