Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Youngstown, Ohio and Economic Junkieism

On Tuesday, May 7th Youngstown, Ohio struck down a charter amendment that would have outlawed hydraulic fracturing in the city.  With the amendment’s defeat the fracking industry has free rein to pump chemicals into the ground in an effort to gain access to natural gas below.  And while the vote was more or less democratic (the campaign to uphold the amendment was largely outspent), it headlines an underlying problem in the development—or lack thereof—in many of our local communities and economies: a lack of foresight and the practice of junkieism.

Hey man, it’s the Rust Belt.  People need jobs.  What’s the harm in pumping a few chemicals into the ground so we can pump out some green? 

Look twice.  The jobs aren’t necessarily going to members of the Youngstown community, or those of eastern Ohio for that matter.  As John Upton points out in his article in Grist, “…the boom has not brought with it many jobs for Ohioans.” Where are the jobs going?  As Upton reports, “…most of the work is being done by specialists who’ve come in from other states.”

It’s a familiar problem.  Unfortunately, it is one we fail to recognize time and again.  Since the end of the Second World War midwest and rural America has been the victim of exploitation and corruption for the purpose of distant economic advancement.  Lured by the promise of jobs, development and the sweet talk of suits and politicians, communities open their doors.  The big boys come in and the money goes out.  What’s left?  Pollution and depleted ecosystems along with unfulfilled promises and local economies that have gained no substantial foothold or sustainable practices. 

Sure but what about securing energy independence?  There are resources right underneath our feet.  

With regard to energy independence, I couldn’t agree more.  But at what cost?  And I am not talking merely about the price of infrastructure. After peace was declared in Europe and the Pacific eastern Kentucky and Appalachia were declared open for business as they ramped up their strip mining industry.  By the 1950s strip mining accounted for 150,000 jobs in Appalachia.  It also resulted in the removal of mountaintops, the destruction of entire ecosystems due to pollution and the burial of headwater streams.  Eric Reece, a writer and professor at the University of Kentucky, points out “The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 700 miles of healthy streams have been completely buried by mountaintop removal.”  

In addition to environmental and ecological homicide there has been an increase in the mortality rate due to cancer as well as kidney, lung and heart disease.  Infants suffer from a unique illness called blue baby syndrome,” the result of sedimentation and dissolved minerals draining from mining sites into nearby streams and into the water supply.

In the end, trading energy dependence for environmental, ecological and physical ruin seems more like trading the Tower for the guillotine.

What’s the answer?  I don’t have the desired twelve-point plan and I’ve yet to meet anyone who does.  Those who claim to have the answer I find are about as knowledgeable in rural affairs as a stockbroker in a sawmill and come packaged with soft hands and a suit and tie.  But what is apparent is that a CEO isn’t necessarily the best person to make decisions for a small town in eastern Ohio.  Sure, fracking advocate D&L Energy Incorporated is local to Youngstown, its Chairman also from the region.  But does he answer to future generations or to the numbers sliding across the plasma screen on the New York Stock Exchange?

Youngstown’s decision last Tuesday showed that local business practices may be no shrewder than the economic policies of our beloved Congress.  Get a quick fix now, deal with the fallout later.  

Sounds like the practices of a junkie.

(image obtained via the creative commons on Flikr)