Paul Cienfuegos’ April 5th, 2016 Commentary on KBOO Evening News
(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes.)
Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.
Last Saturday, I attended the Community Air Forum at Revolution Hall in Portland, sponsored by the Eastside Portland Air Coalition. Alarmingly high levels of arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and other toxic chemicals have been found in the air and soil of two local neighborhoods, with more toxic hot spots being discovered every month.
The situation in some of our neighborhoods is so bad that Portland is now considered to be the third most polluted city in the US. I’m going to repeat that last sentence. The situation in some of our neighborhoods is so bad that Portland is now considered to be the third most polluted city in the United States. That’s not exactly the story most Americans might imagine when they think about Portland as a green city. But the facts say otherwise.
Erin Brockovich was in town to give the keynote speech, and an impressive speech it was! Brockovich is best known for her role uncovering toxic contamination of groundwater by Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation in Hinkley, California in 1993. Her story was turned into an award-winning movie starring Julia Roberts in 2000.
Seven other people gave brief presentations – all of them fascinating, and filled with quite scary information about the state of our air and soil here in Portland. I left this extraordinary event with a feeling of dread in my belly. Not because the situation here is bad, which it is. Not because the regulatory agencies have been proven once again to have ignored the problem for decades, which they have. But because the energetic people who are leading this heroic effort to deal with this environmental scandal do not yet fully comprehend the structural changes that will be necessary to solve this poisoning problem.
One speaker referred to the Department of Environmental Quality (or DEQ) as having been “captured by industry”. I wish it were that simple. In fact, industry didn’t have to capture our regulatory agencies, because industry actually helped to design our regulatory agencies! The Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Authority, and the US Environmental Protection Agency are the regulatory agencies that have allowed the poisoning of Portland’s air and soil for decades.
Regulatory law was originally invented in the late 1800’s, when the US Attorney General met privately with the leaders of the railroad corporations to create the nation’s first regulatory agency, which he described as “a sort of barrier between the railroad corporations and the people.” The public was to be pacified with laws that sounded tough but placed much discretion in the hands of regulators. This new system of law worked so well to shield the railroad industry from public outrage that over the decades that followed, every major industrial sector demanded, and got, its own regulatory agency. In other words, regulatory law is corporate turf.
My colleague Jane Anne Morris loves to say that the primary purpose of environmental regulations is to regulate environmentalists, not to prevent harm to the environment. And anyone who has ever testified at a regulatory hearing knows that she’s absolutely right!
Regulatory law does have one other significant purpose: it normalizes harmful corporate activities, by establishing a so-called safe level of harm, as defined by experts. The granting of the regulatory permit is the authorization to cause harm, and that harm is considered a constitutionally protected property right of a corporate person. Believe me, I’m not making this up!
So what’s the solution here in Portland? Step One is for the Eastside Portland Air Coalition to refocus its attention – away from pleading with agency directors who are, by design, not directly accountable to us. And instead, envisioning what could be achieved if We the People of Portland started to exercise our inherent self-governing authority, by passing local ballot initiatives that prohibit corporations from poisoning us. Through a local ballot initiative, we could ban any release of cadmium, arsenic, or hexavalent chromium, and guarantee to all local residents their Right to Clean Air and Soil. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s city council passed such a Community Rights ordinance a number of years ago.
The Pittsburgh ordinance “establishes the right of Pittsburgh residents, natural communities and ecosystems to be free from toxic trespass”. It holds “corporations, federal, state and local governments and agencies” liable for such toxic trespass. And it defines “Toxic Trespass” as “the involuntary presence of toxic or potentially toxic chemicals and substances within a human body, natural community or ecosystem.” Imagine how much more effective We the People of Portland could be in ending this corporate poisoning of our neighborhoods if we exercised our inherent right to govern ourselves, rather than merely pleading with regulatory agency directors, or our governor, to address this crisis.
You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.
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