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Moench: Utahns worried about pollution must raise voices

Published August 3, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Power to the people" is a cheer that resonates with MoveOn.org every bit as much as it does with the tea party. Both share a distrust of those who pull the levers of power. That the will of the people is being resoundingly ignored is a claim both sides legitimately make.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the arena of energy policy and environmental protection. In a recent poll in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, 81 percent agreed that "we need to do more to ensure oil, gas and mining companies follow laws protecting our land, air and water."

Two-thirds of voters in Utah support the Environmental Protection Agency in requiring reductions in carbon emissions to reduce global warming. Not surprisingly, Utah voters are unique in identifying air pollution as the most serious environmental problem, twice as many as the next highest state, Colorado.

An overwhelming majority of Western voters, including 89 percent in Utah, would be willing to "pay more per month to increase the amount of our energy coming from renewable sources." In ultra-conservative Georgia there is now a faction of the tea party, nicknamed the green tea party, pushing to protect the environment with more solar power and less fossil-fuel power.

But there is no "green tea party" in Utah. Despite what the people want, special interests are determined to make Utah the "carbon" capital of the West. Despite a majority of Utahns recognizing air pollution as our most serious environmental problem, and the international shame that comes with it, gravel pits still blanket the valley with constant dust, construction is under way for bigger refineries, more truck traffic, and a bigger mine. Plans are being drawn for more freeways and more urban sprawl.

To the multiple health problems we know are related to air pollution, we can now add new research showing autism rates are much higher where air pollution is more severe.

Utah has the highest rates of autism in the nation, double the national average. Yet not a single government leader or public official has even commented on what can only be described as an autism crisis, haunting parents and prospective parents alike. And don't look for help from the Department of Health. Gov. Gary Herbert appointed a "doctor" of political science as its director.

With conservatives and liberals both decrying government that dismisses the will of the people, where might we look to rebuild our crumbling democracy and protect public health? Oddly enough, we can find inspiration in the world's largest non-democracy: China.

Decades ago China committed to becoming an industrial powerhouse, regardless of environmental cost, similar to the dirty energy boom now underway in Utah. China has become a pollution and public health horror show — sharp rises in cancer, birth defects, and mortality rates and a dramatic five-and-a-half-year drop in life expectancy.

The Wall Street Journal said, "Industrialization has turned much of the Chinese countryside into an environmental disaster … threatening not only the food supply, but ... the regime itself," but the Chinese people are now fighting back. Tens of thousands of "anti-pollution" riots and protests have broken out in the last few years.

Last week, risking arrest, beatings and even their lives, thousands marched the streets of Jiangmen to oppose a uranium plant near the heart of the city. They chanted, "Give us back our rural homes. We are against nuclear radiation … we need a healthy living environment."

A day later the government withdrew the project. Similar protests killed other polluting industry proposals like battery and petrochemical plants. Chinese professor Willy Wo-Lap Lam observed, "People now realize if their numbers are big enough, if they are united and stand their ground, the government will back down."

The Chinese are learning a hard lesson, one not yet learned in Utah. There is no economic substitute for a livable climate, breathable air, and clean water to drink. The Chinese are learning another lesson — that the future sometimes must be won with a cardboard sign, marching shoes, and a voice that will not be silenced.

Despite my extensive disagreements with Gov. Herbert, I give him credit for often responding to the will of the people. It's time for us to start demonstrating — literally — what that will is.

Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the radiation and health committee, Physicians for Social Responsibility.