By Mike Ellerbrock
Ellerbrock is director of the Center for Economic Education at Virginia Tech, vicariate deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and appointed member of U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Governor Northam’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.
When economics and ethics clash, bet on the dollar. For example, where the Mountain Valley (MVP) and Atlantic Coast (ACP) pipelines traverse rural counties (< 29 people per square mile), they are allowed to use thinner Class III pipes, whereas citizens in urban localities are better protected with thicker Class I pipes.
Also, since EQT’s MVP crosses much rural landscape, it will not include a chemical odorant (Mercaptan) to alert neighbors of a dangerous natural gas leak. Why? Because Mercaptan is expensive.
The benefit/cost ratio speaks clearly: Urban lives are considered more valuable to protect than rural lives. When finance trumps integrity, we all lose.
Throughout “America the beautiful,” poor and minority communities are frequently disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards relative to wealthier white neighborhoods. The differences in demographic and public health data are compelling. Hence, all federal agencies are required to identify and address issues of Environmental Justice (EJ) in their work.
The EJ movement aims to protect the safety and health of underrepresented citizens who lack the political capacity to control the quality and destiny of their habitat or workplace. Note how the original draft routes of the pipelines shifted from wealthier to lower income neighborhoods.
Regarding racial disparities, the ACP plans for a massive natural gas compressor station in the Union Hill community of Buckingham County. To be located adjacent to a former plantation with numerous slaves’ graves, Dominion bought the site on the open market for $1.2 million from a wealthy white absentee landlord.
Today, 99 households reside within two miles of the site, 85 percent of whom are African-American. The current plan includes ten maintenance blow-outs per year that will release approximately 43 tons of NOx, 8 tons of SO2, 8 tons of VOCs, 52 tons of CO, 43 tons of PM, 71 tons of Methane, and 5 tons of HAPs. Through their churches, Union Hill residents have vigorously expressed their fears to government and industry, who respond by promising to build a state-of-art facility to the highest safety standards.
How aware and concerned are we for the ethical treatment of our marginalized neighbors? At a recent meeting of the Virginia Air Board, a state representative said: “If all the standards are met, there is no disproportionate impact. DEQ would have proposed the identical permit no matter where it was located.” One state official (not David Paylor, head of DEQ) said to me: “The Union Hill compressor station is in the middle of nowhere!”
Using strict economic logic, Lawrence Summers, former Harvard president, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and chief economist of the World Bank, advocated that the heaviest polluting industries should migrate to the poorest countries where they would do the least harm to humanity. Let that formula sink in.
Conversely, the late John Rawls, eminent Harvard social philosopher across campus and author of “A Theory of Justice,” asserted that the moral measure of a society is how well it treats its weakest members. Secular and religious ethics focus on the dignity of every human life, with liberty and justice for all.
A recent Roanoke Times op-ed (W. Fizer, The origins of Judeo-Christian principles, Nov 14th) once again asserts that America was built on Judeo-Christian values expressed in the sacred scriptures. Note three interesting omissions: Muslim values — fellow Abrahamic People of the Book; many of our Founding Fathers and Mothers were deists (detached uninvolved God), not theists (personal savior God); and no identification of specific Judeo-Christian principles to consider. Let me suggest seven recurrent Biblical principles to guide us.
“Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, that you did to me” (MT 25:40). “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (LK 6:31; MT 7:12). “Whoever wishes to be first shall be last and servant of all” (MK 9:35; MT 20:27). “Love your enemies” (LEV 19:18; MT 5:43). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (MT 22:39; JAS 2:8). “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (LK 9:24; JN 12:25). “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, selling their property and sharing all things in common” (ACTS 2:42).
By far, Jesus’ most passionate topic was proclaiming the kingdom of God: 35 times in Luke, 55 times collectively in Matthew, Mark and John. We are continually called to be co-operators in building the inclusive kingdom, not with walls, but with love. America’s shining light (MT 5:14; President Ronald Reagan) is flickering. And our children are watching.