The neighbor in poet Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” remarked that “Good fences make good neighbors,” as the two men bonded over their tradition of rebuilding the wall between their fields.
It’s not just a physical wall that builds good neighbors. It’s the respect for boundaries and the sensibilities of others with whom we share a mutual space that makes a metaphorical wall effective.
But one can’t build a physical wall tall enough to stop pollution from drifting across state line. And one can’t build understanding for the impact of one state’s actions on another if there are is no respect for how one’s actions affect another.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency last week, in refusing to side with New York in its petition to reduce smog-producing pollution that drifts here from other states, endangering the health of our residents and having a significant negative impact on the environment and the plants and animals who depend on it.
The sulfur and nitrogen oxides from the burning of fossil fuels like coal mix with water in the atmosphere and create acids that make lakes uninhabitable to animals and aquatic plants, as well as damage to plants and animal habitats on land through the deposit of acids and heavy metals.
If you’ve ever seen those crystal clear lakes in the Adirondacks where you can see straight down to the lifeless bottom, it’s not because that water is so perfectly clean; it’s because the life of it has been burned out of it by acid rain caused by pollution, much of it from other states.
In the air, the smog created by this cross-state pollution creates a situation where the air is difficult to breathe for some individuals and contributes to respiratory illnesses like asthma, lung damage, heart disease and other health problems.
To help reduce the impact of one state’s pollution on another, there’s a provision in the federal Clean Air Act that’s actually known as the “Good Neighbor” provision. It’s designed to protect states that are downwind from coal-fired plants and other sources of pollution that drifts across state lines.
The Adirondacks and Catskills in upstate New York are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of pollution produced in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan and Maryland.
Last year, New York submitted a petition to the EPA asking it to do its job of protecting the environment by finding that those states are significantly interfering with New Yorks ability to meet national health-based smog standards, according to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Last week, the EPA officially denied New York’s request, despite significant opposition raised by environmental groups like the Adirondack Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and others that supported the state’s petition.
Interestingly, the EPA’s ruling in favor of polluting states over New York came two weeks after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of an updated version of the cross-state protections and in fact found that portions of it need to be strengthened.
The EPA under the Trump administration, in rejecting New York’s petition, defied its own federal courts calling for more stringent regulation, just as it has moved to either delay or weaken other protections sought for air and water quality in New York and other states.
The decision puts the health of New Yorkers at risk. And it puts our environment and wildlife at risk.
The Environmental Protection Agency was established to protect the physical health of the environment, not to protect the financial health of pollution-producing corporations and the states that benefit from those companies by enacting lax air- and water-quality standards.
Good neighbors respect one another and act in deference to each other’s mutual benefit.
When states don’t act kindly to their neighbors, the federal government has a legal and moral duty to intervene.
In the case of cross-state pollution, the federal government has abdicated that responsibility to New York.
It’s time for our representatives in Congress to now step in and force the federal government to uphold its obligations.