Power and justice


“Civilization rests on a set of promises; if the promises are broken too often, the civilization dies, no matter how rich it may be, or how mechanically clever. Hope and faith depend on the promises; if hope and faith go, everything goes.” (Herbert Agar).

Last winter, our family business, a school in Glen Spey, notified our town that we intended to build a two-story classroom addition. Over time, we were compelled to hire three engineers costing $20,000 to study soils, septic discharge, runoff into streams, parking capacity, fire safety and health issues.

Though not elated, we assured the town of our understanding for the need to protect human and environmental health. Until our cumulative impact study was completed, however, we could not drive a single nail, in effect a six-month delay, or moratorium—for a simple building addition.

Another project, somewhat larger than mine, could have impacts accumulating over 30,000 sites totaling 120,000 acres requiring 30 million truck trips for the transport of 270 billion gallons of water to which two billion gallons of toxic chemicals would be added before injection underground.

The project, of course, is gas drilling, and the impacts are either entirely exempt from any rules or so under-regulated that Bradford County, PA Conservation District Manager, Mike Lovegreen, says he must sit by in disbelief as trucks hauling contaminated water ply his rural roads without written manifests detailing the nature, gallonage, or the destination of their poisonous cargo.

Why an entire industry routinely receives such exemptions can be explained with terms like “Halliburton loophole” which by now we can all spell backwards. But this privilege flows from another far more sinister concept—national sacrifice zones. Absent protection under the law, the Navajo with lung cancer from uranium mining, West Virginians with liver disorders from coal slurry and Texans sucking benzene are now joined by counties in Pennsylvania, which district manager Lovegreen wanly refers to as “throw away zones.”

A government-corporate coziness legitimizes de facto tyranny over the ability of whole peoples to control their own destinies and to enjoy the fruits of our democracy—including` the redress of grievances. Are we to become the next sacrifice zone? The gas industry is banking on a growing fatalism that kills hope and asks us to forget that our leaders have ever promised to protect us from such dangers, by intoning the presence of forces over which we have no control.

If my town (Lumberland) is so concerned that the environment of Glen Spey not be sacrificed through unchecked development of local businesses with roots in the community, should it not be far more concerned with the encroachment of a large scale and potentially dangerous industry partially or wholly owned by foreign entities?

Guess what? Lumberland is! So too is the Town of Highland, both throwing off the mantle of weakness and now leading the region in seeking ways to challenge the authority of the state to pre-empt community decision-making, and, in so doing, restoring the promises—and our faith in democracy. Stay tuned.

[Peter Comstock, head of The Homestead School, is a founder of Lumberland Concerned Citizens, which collaborated with its town on the recent enactment of home rule and gas drilling moratorium resolutions.]