States’ Rights an unsettling question

Kayaking on a creek.While many of us have been quibbling over the details of our Distracter-in-Chief’s latest tweet – or more recently, his sudden lack of early morning digital shouts to his public – most of us are, for various reasons, not paying much attention to some of the more important edicts he has, with less fanfare, issued and will continue to issue. It’s not that what he is doing is secret; too many of us are simply not paying attention.

When Scott Pruitt was made head of the Environmental Protection Agency, we understood on some level that he would like to abolish the agency, and there was media commentary noting the incongruity of placing in charge the guy who had mounted 14 lawsuits to block the his new subordinates from doing what their name seem to indicate they should be doing.

Tuesday, Trump issued an executive order directing Pruitt to begin doing away with the Clean Water Rule, also known as “Waters of the  U.S.” That is a rule promulgated in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, that would extend protection from (allow me a slight over-simplification) the navigable waters of the nation to many of those creeks and streams that feed them.

States Rights are a wonderful concept for setting highway speed limits, or the length of fishing seasons, or the size and cost of the capital rotunda. Not so good are arguments that Oklahoma, of which Pruitt was Attorney General when he filed those lawsuits on behalf of the petroleum production industry, should be allowed to pollute the Ogallala Aquifer that lies under and supplies fresh water for eight states from South Dakota to Texas, including Oklahoma. Or that polluters in that state should be given freedom to poison the creeks that feed the rivers that flow into surrounding states.

Or that natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania should be allowed to spill fracking wastewater into the ground, where it can make its way to streams that run into the Susquehanna River – which is a drinking water source for several million downstream residents of Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Susquehanna River also is the largest contributor to the Chesapeake Bay, which in turn is a major food source for the East Coast.

When a burst storage tank in West Virginia put toxic coal wash chemicals in that state’s Elk River, some of the chemical made the trip to Cincinnati, via the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. In theory, had the spill been a bit worse, it would have been found in the Mississippi River.

A friend once argued if he wanted to put an outhouse on his front lawn, that was his right, and I had no right to tell him otherwise. I agreed, assuming the only argument was about esthetics. But I objected strongly to his chosen location allowing his effluent to harm my well water.

Some things should be governed by uniform standards. Water and air are two of the most important. Some of us can remember the pre-EPA sight of brown air over New York and Los Angeles, and waters in New England dying from acid rain blown there from coal-fired electricity plants in western Pennsylvania. Televisions, before the EPA, often displayed pictures of poisoned riverine “signs of progress and jobs” flowing past paper and steel making industrial plants.

We need some overseeing agency to ensure that those of us living downstream are protected from the carelessness or, in some cases, willful disregard, of those poisoning our water from upstream.

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