The Right to Clean Air and Clean Water
Pollution is killing people and threatening our planet because politicians put corporate profits above human health. That’s got to stop.
Mossville, Louisiana, was a historic community that stood for freedom and equality when it was founded by former slaves some 150 years ago. Beginning in the 1940s, when the state virtually eliminated taxes for new industry, more than a dozen plants were built around the community. The chemical complexes steadily pumped out cancer-causing dioxins that poisoned the air, spread a deadly carpet of particles on the land and mixed with the local bayous and ground water. Blood tests demanded by suffering residents showed dioxin levels in 2001 were three times the national average. Mossville residents spoke of their high cancer rates in a 2010 CNN investigation into “Toxic America.”
Mossville today stands not for freedom, but for the merciless power of corporate polluters. The community has almost vanished now as the unincorporated town and its residents, left with little choice, have sold public buildings and homes to a South African chemical company to make way for its latest massive expansion.
Pollution is everywhere. In industrial cities like Flint, Michigan, where the city’s people were poisoned by lead in their drinking water. In agricultural areas like California’s Central Valley, where massive air pollution has created an epidemic of asthma in children. In Mossville, part of an entire region ravaged by the chemicals industry.
In communities across the country, the air we breathe is polluted, the water we drink is contaminated, and it’s killing us — shortening lives by years and sending the rates of cancers, breathing disorders, and other diseases soaring.
None of this happened by accident.
It happened because those at the top of our society made the decision to value money over morality. For big businesses and the politicians who depend on their donations, driving profits ever higher matters more than keeping people alive and healthy. Cutting costs is the prevailing religion. Cheap beats safe.
This tragedy threatens the health and livelihoods of people all over America. More than that, the unholy crusade for profit is pushing our entire planet closer and closer to the rising seas, raging storms, unstoppable wildfires, soaring temperatures and severe food shortages of climate catastrophe.
The only reason we’re facing this unimaginable suffering is that we live in a society where corporations are allowed to poison our air for the sake of their profits. If our Right to Clean Air and Clean Water were guaranteed, we would have attacked global warming long before the current crisis by strictly regulating the greenhouse gases that cause it.
Tragically, however, this has been going on for a very long time, and the Trump administration now is accelerating the damage and the danger.
No one has the right to poison us to make themselves richer.
This administration’s goal is to serve corporate interests, including the financial interests of the Trump and Kushner families. If people get sick and die as a result… Well, that may be too bad, but it’s not the Trump administration’s concern.
This explains why a coal lobbyist wound up in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. Seriously! Before Donald Trump tapped him to run the EPA, Andrew Wheeler’s whole job was to promote the use of coal, which scientists agree is the world’s dirtiest fuel.
Wheeler’s top client was Murray Energy — America’s largest coal company. And he didn’t exactly leave the lobbying world behind when he was sworn in as a cabinet member: He’s met with former clients while serving in the EPA — an apparent violation of the Trump administration’s ethics pledge and Wheeler’s own promises when he took his government job.
Ethical behavior is not really his concern. Instead, his EPA is focused on killing rules and regulations that stopped big corporations from poisoning the American people with chemicals, sewage, and pollution.
The people in this administration— the entire Republican Party, in fact — are putting a price on American lives and, as places like Mossville show, the whole American way of life.
What I’m saying is simple and should be self-evident: No one has a right to poison us to make themselves richer. No one has a right to destroy our planet to make money. That’s not OK.
Permitting this to happen is injustice, plain and simple. And let’s be clear. When corporations pollute, they pollute a lot more in lower-income communities and communities of color. They dump more of their poison in neighborhoods where the people are least able to fight back. They do this because it’s cheaper for them. They do it because they can.
If the water corrodes a car engine, what’s it do inside people?
Think about what happened in Flint. Republicans running the state changed the water supply from the pure waters of Lake Huron to the toxic water of the Flint River — even though the river water had been an industrial waste dump for more than a century. Why? Only because it was cheaper.
They switched one local General Motors engine plant over to the polluted river water along with the rest of Flint. Soon after, the folks at GM realized the new water supply was literally eating away the metal in their new engines. So, GM went to the city and state and asked to switch the plant’s water supply back to the old, safe one. The government promptly shifted them back.
It’s been reported that a union worker at the Flint plant asked, “If it’s too corrosive for an engine, what’s it doing to the inside of a person?” But officials right up to the Republican governor’s office did nothing to switch Flint’s homes back to safe water. They just kept delivering that same dangerous, corrosive, lead-filled water for people to drink. Water you couldn’t even bathe in without breaking out in hives.
When the story broke, the government lied and tried to cover it up. It took a court order to force Flint and Michigan authorities to promise to make Flint’s water safe again. Meanwhile, some 9,000 children were exposed to dangerous, unhealthy water.
It was disgusting. It was criminal. And once again, it was not an accident. It is particularly not an accident that more than half of Flint’s people are black and 41.9 percent live in poverty. Whenever we see communities that lack real representation in government, we see people suffering chronic illnesses that are directly tied to pollution.
Corporate polluters and their political enablers intentionally centralize and localize pollution in neighborhoods that historically don’t have the resources to fight back. That’s unjust. But that’s the economic deal the Republican Party leaders have struck: they will make us sick and kill the planet in order to make the most money possible. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t sound like much of a deal to most people, does it? But corporate interests are allowed to violate basic human rights in the United States.
On the original 5 Rights tour in December, I held a roundtable discussion and town hall meeting on the Right to Clean Air and Clean Water in Fresno, California. Fresno is in the San Joaquin Valley, where communities are disproportionately served by contaminated water supplies and the air is thick with exhaust gases and dust. In Fresno, as in highly polluted cities like Beijing or Los Angeles, unbreathable air is so commonplace that real-time air quality reports are displayed on electronic signs in malls. For me, it’s a frightening sign of things to come for the entire world.
Depending on which metric you trust, the air over Fresno is either the 5th, 4th, or 3rd worst in the country — out of at least 187 cities! All too many Fresno residents are at heightened risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death. They suffer from preventable respiratory ailments like asthma — which nearly 1 in 5 Fresno kids struggle with.
I wanted to be in Fresno so we could ask this question: How is it acceptable that if you were born poor in West Fresno, your life expectancy is 15 years shorter than your neighbors’ in more affluent Northeast Fresno, barely two miles away?
For residents of West Fresno, and so many other American communities like it, the need for their Right to Clean Air and Clean Water is urgent. It’s about people being treated equally; everyone’s health mattering; each life being equally important. It’s about environmental justice.
5 Rights that are inseparable and can’t be taken away
All the 5 Rights are connected to each other. They cannot be separated. Without the Right to Clean Air & Clean Water, for example, we cannot enjoy the rest of our rights. We can’t possibly get an equal chance to thrive based on our hard work, talent, and creativity.
Guaranteeing clean air and clean water is critical to maintaining a functioning democratic society in the 21st century. We must stop polluting to stave off climate crisis, and it’s not clear that democratic governments can survive the chaos of full-blown climate disaster.
People have known about climate change for more than 40 years. But inaction has left us on the brink of catastrophe. Had we started taking this seriously in the early 2000s, we would have needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by about 3 percent per year to avert disaster. Today, we’re looking at 10 percent per year. That’s hard. And if we do nothing until 2030, it’s 30 percent per year. That’s not just hard—that’s impossible.
The technology, the low costs, the clear benefits—it’s all lining up for us right now. We know a green economy will produce savings on energy costs for average Americans, higher wages, and net new jobs. We’ve done the studies. We’ll be wealthier, healthier, and safer.
Only the people will win this. And we will win.
We can do this. And we must.
Last year, NRG Energy, the multi-billion-dollar power company, tried to build a new fossil-fuel-burning power plant — the Puente Power Plant — along the beach in Oxnard, California.
The city has multiple dirty power plants and industrial plants already, coughing out chemicals that coat the shoreline and a local wetland. Parts of Oxnard have sickeningly high asthma rates, and some of the worst air pollution problems in the state.
This is a community that had a gorgeous stretch of California beaches taken away from them and fouled by out-of-state corporations. The Puente plant was only going to make things worse for yet another generation. And so, even though it was supposed to be a done deal, the community organized and fought back. And I joined them.
I spoke alongside Oxnard residents everywhere — in meetings, public hearings, even in parking lots. We told anyone who would listen that this power plant was an obsolete solution to a 21st century problem. That renewable energy is so plentiful in California that we are already selling off the excess power to other states! Most of all, we talked about how much the community had suffered already at the hands of fossil fuel companies.
The people of Oxnard have an average income of about $22,000. It’s a community where more children go to school near high levels of toxic pesticides than virtually anywhere else in the state; where nearly half of all adults didn’t graduate high school. It seemed to NRG that this was a community incapable of resisting a big corporation’s plans.
But the people did resist. And because they joined together, they were able to stare down the company and make NRG blink.
In mid-December, NRG withdrew its application for the Puente Power Plant. Now, because the people said no, any new power generation in Oxnard will come from renewables. That means more jobs, cheaper energy, better health.
This tells us an abiding American truth: In Oxnard, and all across the country, if the people come together, the people win. And I believe the people invariably come together for the right causes. I believe the people get it right.
That’s why I see my role as raising up the voices of the American people. The Right to Clean Air and Clean Water — all the 5 Rights — come directly from conversations I’ve had with people all over the country in the past few years. I’ve come to understand that the 5 Rights belong to the people and the people will reclaim them.
Together, let’s tell the new Congress we need the 5 Rights.