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Hinges of destiny

February 10, 2016

In 2011 and 2012, the towns of Bethel, Forestburgh, Highland, Lumberland and Tusten in New York State enacted zoning laws banning a host of environmentally damaging industrial activities and infrastructure related to gas drilling. It was the culmination of five years of sustained citizen effort to educate ourselves and persuade our town officials that we had the authority and the obligation to take action.

A very disturbing concept in that fight was the notion of “sacrifice zones,” a coinage inspired by certain proponents of the gas industry who tried to persuade us that other parts of the country had compromised their environmental health to foster the fossil fuel industry, and it was only fair that communities in Pennsylvania and New York make the same sacrifice.

Gas drilling isn’t the only way to turn a community into a sacrifice zone. If you want to see what one looks like, consider the now notorious case of Flint, Michigan. First, the state removed the city’s elected officials and appointed a manager to impose a form of economic martial law. Then, to help finance tax breaks for the state’s wealthiest people and corporations, the governor chose to replace Flint’s clean drinking water with cheaper toxic water from the Flint River. Public health experts were defamed and their warnings ignored. Now, thousands of Flint’s children are at risk for irreparable health damage due to their exposure to dangerous levels of lead and other toxins, $2.4 billion in home value has been destroyed, and criminal investigations are underway. In an incredible twist, last summer at the height of the growing realization that the entire population had been poisoned, the U.S. Army used live ammunition within the city in a prolonged urban warfare training exercise. Panicked citizens received no advance warning.

This is what happens when your community becomes a sacrifice zone. Once you’re devalued, you’re fair game for endless damage.

We are gearing up to fight the location of a compressor on the Millennium Pipeline in Highland, one of five towns whose zoning explicitly prohibits such facilities. Now, as in 2008, the voices of doom—even some well known environmental groups—urge compromise. They say we can’t fight FERC, the much criticized government agency that oversees pipelines. But if we don’t fight now with everything we’ve got, we don’t know where the compromises will end. I’m not ready to let my town be sacrificed to Millennium’s profits or to prolong a dying industry.