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Guest column/Lessons from Earth Day

On April 22, environmentalists all over the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day through virtual activities. The first Earth Day took place in 1970, and it was a wake-up call to the human race. If we continued to treat our planet carelessly using raw materials as if they were endless, and dumping our wastes into the water, air and land, our planet would no longer provide sustenance for us or the thousands of other species that share our planet Earth.

The world has come to a standstill as countries try to protect their citizens from the COVID-19 virus spreading across the globe. While our country is preoccupied with this crisis, polluting industries have used this as an excuse to increase their assault on our environment. Some government agencies charged with assuring the safety of our air and water, have all but abdicated their responsibilities.

As usual, the oil and gas industry has been quick to claim their industry is an essential one. Although the maintenance of existing energy supplies is critical, new pipeline construction is not. Yet, many pipelines, including the Mariner East II in Pennsylvania, the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia and the Keystone XL Pipeline in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska all continue to be constructed.

Oil Change International’s Collin Rees spoke out against bailing out big oil saying, “We need billions of dollars invested directly in vulnerable communities dying from COVID-19, not spent propping up massive oil companies and unneeded projects that would trample indigenous rights and exacerbate the climate crisis.”

In the midst of a pandemic where people are being asked to avoid family funerals and are separated from their loved ones, hundreds of out-of-state construction workers will be moving into rural communities in these regions.

This is especially disturbing in isolated areas that lack hospitals and medical resources such as indigenous communities and isolated regions in West Virginia.

Citizens living in communities close to the Shell Plastic Cracker plant in Monaca have asked Gov. Tom Wolf to pause its construction due to the possible spreading of the COVID-19 virus. They cited a range of hazards including crowded buses and a lack of hand sanitizer in portable bathrooms. The site has seen more than 7,000 construction workers employed on the 40-acre tract of land.

Communities in and around pipeline construction also are worried about the spread of the virus from “man-camps.” Out-of-state workers use these camps to set up temporary housing. The continued construction of pipelines and other oil and gas projects during a time of a pandemic shows a total disregard for the health and safety of local communities, and also for pipeline workers and their families.

The plastics industry claims that plastic is essential due to the virus outbreak, but a recent study in Marine Pollution Bulletin points out that nurdles and microplastics can be used as vectors for pathogens. Nurdles on public beaches in the Scotland region were “colonized” by harmful bacteria (E. coli and vibrio.) These pathogens can actually “hitch-hike” on plastic and hide from UV light and other environmental exposures that might kill them. Researches believe nurdles could also attract other pathogens such as norovirus and rotavirus.

On March 26, the EPA announced a “temporary policy on environmental enforcement” would occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the results of this policy is “no penalties will be given to entities who fail to comply with routine monitoring and reporting.” This also includes no reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and the weakening of transportation sector emission requirements.

As we struggle with a disease that targets the lungs, the EPA announced it will weaken 2012 auto pollution standards. This will make the USA one of the worst countries when it comes to fuel efficiency. According to a Mother Jones article, the reversal means “an increase of 185,000 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 other respiratory problems, and an increase of $190 billion in health costs between now and 2050.”

A recent April 2020 report from Harvard University stated that “long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the United States.”

Scientists have said this policy is a “license to pollute.” Some industries that will greatly benefit from the lack of monitoring and reporting include: chemical plants, oil and gas, power plants, steel manufacturers and others who could discharge more pollutants into the air and waterways of our nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has in a way become another wake-up call. It has given us time to revisit our relationships with everything in our lives. Those material things we thought we couldn’t live without are not as important. We are realizing that the stock market is not the correct apparatus to use when measuring happiness or the health of the world.

While the world has been dealing with an epic pandemic, scientists are seeing interesting evidence showing the effects of human activities on the health of the planet might be reversible. While we pause to curtail the spread of this COBID 19 virus, the Earth is healing.

Scientists from the Global Carbon Project are predicting “global carbon dioxide emissions may drop by more than 5 percent in 2020, which would be the largest fall since the end of the Second World War.” Satellite images from NASA show reductions in pollution all over the world. Scientists warn this phenomenon will only be temporary as the lockdowns over the nation and world are lifted.

Although these declines are small and will not immediately affect climate change, they prove that if we can continue to reduce the amount of man-made carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we can make a difference.

For me, a recent sign of hope was the announcement of the construction of a large solar project on Brown’s Island (“Solar farm planned for former WSX property on Brown’s Island,” Thursday.) As a child, I grew up about a mile from the island in a house on Nebo Drive in Toronto. The island was a great place to find Indian arrowheads, but once construction of the coke plant was started, those artifacts were buried.

I remember the horrible explosion at the coke plant in 1972 that killed 19 men, including our next-door neighbor. It shook our house.

I had an uncle who worked at the coke ovens. He died from cancer. For years, fumes of polyaromatic hydrocarbons like benzene bathed our community.

Now, witnessing an environmentally “green” project taking form on this island is truly astounding. A large solar-panel farm will be constructed by the company One Sun, out of Albuquerque, N.M. It will provide 40 megawatts of electricity from 120,000 panels. I only wish the Belmont County officials would listen to the members of Concerned Ohio River Residents (nocrackerplantov.com) and look at this project and understand that economic development and a clean environment are not mutually exclusive.

(Pokladnik, a resident of Uhrichsville, is an environmental scientist.)

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