Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Inconvenient Choice: stay poor or stay sick?

For me, the terms “smog,” “particulate matter,” and “air pollution” all bring to mind images of the bustling city, urban factories, and gas-guzzling SUVs in bumper-to-bumper traffic on giant freeways. I imagine that many urbanites see the same imagery when they think of pollution, which might explain why urban areas receive the majority of pollution-related monitoring systems and health assessments.

The health and environmental impacts of air pollution in rural places, however, are often overlooked. When we think of rural areas, we think of clear, pristine skies and bright green hillsides—places where people breathe easy, and where we can go to escape the grime of the city. However, these idyllic visions of the countryside are often more myth than reality, as rural areas often get both the secondary effects of air pollution from the cities, as well as the primary effects of pollution from rural industrial activities such as mining and drilling. The fact that urban-based policymakers are overlooking rural pollution can be problematic for rural residents, as they may be suffering from the effects of air pollution and yet not getting the health assessments and treatments they need.

For example, the New York Times reports that last week in Pinedale, Wyoming (population 2,087), State officials declared an “ozone alert” and warned residents not to spend too much time outdoors, as air quality was expected to deteriorate drastically over the weekend. Residents and local environmental experts explained that their beloved county was prone to air pollution because of its geography, a high-altitude valley that creates an atmospheric inversion, acting like a “lid on a pot” that locks in pollutants, and because of its economy, which is primarily based on natural gas drilling.

Although the existence of rural pollution may be shocking for their urban counterparts just 180 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, Pinedale residents are no strangers to ozone alerts. Yet, residents also say they would never leave their town, and would not want to change their drilling-based economy. As one resident said, “If poor air quality is what I have to live with, then that’s a choice I make.” Another resident, whose house is a mere 300 yards from a gas well, reminded readers that interfering with the drilling industry is simply not an option in Pinedale. “It’s our livelihood,” she said.

Furthermore, despite the ozone alerts and anecdotal evidence of pollution-related health symptoms such as a high incidence of asthma and other pulmonary conditions, a Pinedale medical clinic director admits that even he is unsure of the link between health risks and the drill rigs. Apparently the town is considered too small for a valid scientific study.

Without the proper implementation of health assessments and treatment programs, rural residents are put in the harrowing position of having to choose between their livelihoods, often based on heavily-polluting industries, and their health. In Pinedale, residents don’t even see it as a choice at all. This no-win situation would not be acceptable to policymakers in urban areas, and it should not be acceptable in rural places either.


Chez Marta said...

Thanks Sarah, for the post about rural pollution, because this is such a divisive issue, and yet, we rarely examine our biases in this regard. Methane, one of the major greenhouse gases, is emitted in astounding amounts by the cattle industry (note I use industry, because it hardly qualifies as farming anymore). Studies show that the slaughterhouses are one of the major contributions towards global warming, yet we fret about the mileage of light trucks, and about the high price of solar panels on our homes. We do not stop and ask if industrial emissions are a more signifant source of pollution and global warming activity, because we are so indoctrinated to protect the jobs that such industries entail... We rarely ask if a greener alternative industry would be able to create at least an equivalent number of jobs, or if there could be a way of reducing these harmful emissions without completely losing the mines, factories and slaughterhouses, and their attendant employment.

Jen Wickens said...

Rural residents are more likely to be exposed to environmental pollutants because local, state, and federal governments incentivize polluting remote areas in order to keep pollutants away from cities that are densely-populated and already so polluted as a result of industrialization during the 18th and 19th centuries. Another reason is because pollution is often a direct result of the one successful industry in that rural area. And obviously there's the issue of anti-environmentalist interest groups wielding large sums of cash in Washington.