We Need Cleaner Air and Cleaner Hearts

Last week NPR featured a series on poisoned places exposing the ways polluted air continues to harm residents all over the US. When I heard this report on All Things Considered, I recognized the place immediately: thick fog, benzene in the air, burning eyes and throats, obscure cancers. Perhaps this was LaBelle, PA – the town I researched roughly a year ago for an article on displacement due to coal ash pollution.

Nope. It was Tonawanda, NY, where a dilapidated coal plant purposefully broke regulations and caused massive amounts of carcinogens to poison the air.

Every day, small communities across the country meet in coalitions at firehouses and town halls to fight large energy corporations that, with full knowledge, threaten the lives of residents.

For a while I wondered why the dilemma. “Why not let the justice system work the problem out through mass torts?” I thought. “Everyone could get rich and move to Tahiti!”

Well, these companies have done the math. One attorney who began pursuing a case against an offending property manager in LaBelle found that the lawsuit would cost millions of dollars and would only bankrupt the defendant. Residents would receive no money at all and the law firm would be out its entire investment.

When I first met victims of coal ash pollution last fall at a reception in DC, I also naively asked them why they don’t just move away. They explained they are poor, and now with the pollution no one will ever buy their homes. Their properties are a death sentence.

At this point, I encourage victims of serious pollution to become refugees. As hard as that is to say, it’s the only swift way to get out of danger, and I’m afraid the only way to raise awareness of this issue.

The poisoned thousands must refuse to die at the hands of these calloused polluters of the earth and its inhabitants. Otherwise the rest of us will continue on our present course of ignorantly lighting our homes with martyrs. We will continue to talk about the offending corporations as “job creators” and not by their proper title of murderers.

Perhaps when refugee camps begin dotting our countryside we will start to pay attention. Perhaps when homeless eye cancer victims with one lung and half a stomach start filling up our hospitals, our shelters, our churches, we’ll finally give a damn.

In the meantime, my short play Ash is getting a reading in NYC next weekend. Based on my interviews with residents of LaBelle, it discusses some of the challenges for one victim of polluted air as she tries to start a new life elsewhere.

Let me know if you’re in the area and want to check it out. This reading series typically fills up, so reserve your ticket by emailing fact.reservations(at)gmail.com. Obviously since it’s just a reading it’s still in process. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.

And for more info, read my first report on LaBelle.

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