Water, Democracy and Citizen Engagement: New York Times reinforces why citizen participation is essential for the public health, safety and wellbeing

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Not long ago, I spoke with an attorney in Ohio who was surprised by my concern that state authorities had issued a water pollution permit for a facility containing provisions that had not been properly published for citizen review and comment.  He simply could not understand how the public in his state would be harmed if these pollution permits were left solely in the hands of regulators. Why on Earth does the public really need to be informed about and allowed to review and comment on the terms, conditions and content of pollution permits anyway? Why does public participation in environmental decision-making serve the public interest? Why not leave the public interest to "experts" in government and industry, who really know what is going on? It was as if the attorney thought an informed and engaged public could only cause mischief and gum up the works.

For some reason, this conversation has just stuck in my head; and I find myself thinking about it as an example of how diminished is the appreciation of the central importance of an informed an engaged citizenry is to the American enterprise of ordered liberty, where eternal vigilance is necessary for the protection of the Republic---as in Res Publica...i.e., the "Public Thing."

But it came rushing to my mind in a new, intense light as I read the New York Times last weekend. Charles Duhigg's excellent expose "Toxic Waters: Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering"underscores exactly why citizen participation in these seemingly arcane regulatory processes is central, vital and essential to guaranteeing our own health and safety and the wellbeing of the environment. Mr. Duhigg's story reveals, in graphic detail, the risk of "leaving it to experts" and the costs of government not doing its duty to the public--- costs in the form of children's decaying teeth, scarred skin, exotic cancers, and destroyed property.

The article outlines deplorable examples of impacts being felt from polluted water including a family whose children have broken out in painful rashes after bathing in tap water and literally had their teeth burned away by a bevy of toxics dripping from their taps. It is a story of government failure to protect the public from depredations of industry. It is ugly, despicable, and wholly unacceptable.

It is consistent with our experience with government agencies in the Midwest where we seek to enforce environmental laws under the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

Looking at the maps and data that accompany the story online, it is impossible not to notice that the some of the states that NRDC's Midwest program are most active in, are some of the worst offenders. In Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio over 60% of the regulated entities are in violation of the Clean Water Act. That is right, 3 out of every five are failing to live up to the law.  But it is the regulatory response that is far more galling. Michigan's 12% enforcement rate for these cases---the percentage of cases when the state actually responds to the reported violations---should be an embarrassment. But that weak response looks downright iron-fisted in comparison to their neighbors... Illinois is at 7%. Indiana at 3%. And Ohio is at a negligible 1% enforcement rate---almost a "non-detect" level of activity.

Which leads me back to that conversation in Ohio...

Why is the public harmed when they are prevented from taking part in these public processes? Because sometimes regulators have other agendas. Because sometimes things fall through the cracks. Because relying on unreliable bureaucracies for protection puts us in harm's way. And frankly, from what I've seen, folks in the Buckeye State are clearly in harm's way...

The Obama administration has set a new tone, saying that these conditions are unacceptable. I expect this to deliver quick results---some of which we are already seeing from the US EPA in the form of last week's mountaintop removal mining reforms and last month's intervention against chronic coal air polluters in Illinois. But there is yet an extremely long way to go. And much of that work is going to have to happen at the state level, where often narrow interests have outweighed the public good. Louis Brandeis talked about the states as "laboratories of democracy," but as the shocking abdication of enforcement responsibilities clearly show, many of these states have morphed into Petri dishes of dysfunction.

As you can probably gather, I am disturbed by this story. Water is indicative of the broader reality of air, coal, land and natural resource destruction, and the melt down of public institutions that are supposed to protect us illustrates a shameful tumble away from the values most dear to our democracy. Sadly, much of what was described in the Times is no surprise. I will be blogging on some of the barriers that we have been bumping into-particularly in Ohio and Indiana, two states actively pushing back on efforts to address these issues.

do you remember tap waterby malla mi via Flickr