Scripps principles hold little hope for the
Special to the Courier & Press
Sunday, April 15, 2001

As I read Scripps-Howard's statement of policies and principles, I kept looking for something from which environmentalists in this part of the country could take heart. Sadly, it is impossible.

While there is no doubt that the "American way of life is enhanced by clean air, water and soil and by flourishing wildlife and natural scenic splendor," the next statement is a bit puzzling.

It is a fact that to industry in this state virtually no "environmental solution" is found to be "proven and cost-effective," be they small, mom-and-pop operations or huge trans-national corporations.

A full thirty years after the first Earth Day, our corporate culture continues to be either unable or unwilling to consider environmental degradation a true cost of doing business.

In most instances the resulting damage to public health or natural habitat cannot be (or is not) quantified in dollars and cents unless a physical clean-up of a toxic discharge is required.

There are also no "cost-effective" methods by which government can force industry to clean up its act. Not that they could.

A good example of this could be seen last year with the White River fish kill. A toxic discharge came from somewhere near Anderson, IN killing over 70 tons of fish on the White River.

Despite a thorough investigation, for whatever reason there have been no fines or penalties imposed upon any responsible party. To date, taxpayers have foot the entire bill for the cleaning up the dead fish and restocking of the river.

The main problem is that government at all levels in this country have become practically wholly-owned subsidiaries of huge, powerful corporations by virtues of politics and the campaign finance situation.

More specifically (and more depressing to some), here in Indiana, our state environmental agency primarily quantifies existing and proposed pollution levels and lacks the regulatory enforcement jurisdiction to do anything more than give industry an occasional slap-on-the-wrist for serious environmental infractions.

The next portion of the statement, requiring that government policies to be contingent upon scientific evidence is also flawed for a number of reasons.

Southwestern Indiana have repeatedly appealed to government agencies, academic institutions and the health care establishment in an attempt to see serious environmental health research studies performed in this region.

We would like to have better data which would prove once and for all that there is more than simply antidotal evidence of a relationship between the enormous industrial air emissions of this region and elevated levels of cancer, heart disease and respiratory ailments. 

For whatever reason, our repeated appeals have fallen upon deaf ears. Industry knows this.

As the recent release of the 1999 Toxic Release Inventory data shows, Southwestern Indiana remains one of the most polluted regions of the country and gives one the impression that we truly live within an industrial sacrifice zone.

Sadly, elected officials, Chamber of Commerce types and others within the power establishment refuse to acknowledge this or do anything about it. Ditto the academy, the health care institutions or the media.

Irrespective of the success or failure of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, it is highly unlikely that in the present political climate Congress or state legislatures will write statutes which are more specific regarding environmental regulations.

Under the tutelage of President George Bush, it looks as if the tide will be turning in the opposite direction for quite some time.

Yes, recycling and waste reduction are vital to environmental protection. However, only single-digit percentages of the waste stream in this community continues to be recycled.

Likewise, as regional deposits of special waste in the Laubscher Meadows landfill continue to increase with virtually no regional constraints, oversight or financial penalties, it renders this policy statement a moot one for this newspaper.

The final statement regarding the socialization of cleanup costs pertaining to "pollution or blight for which no one is clearly responsible" seems a bit of a paradox.

In most instances pollution is created in the process of either extracting a natural resource or producing a manufactured good or service which is sold to someone. We are all consumers and collectively create the enormous demand for the goods and services available in this economy. So, in a sense, we are all responsible.

It appears, then, as if we have now gone full circle. Instead of establishing a set of policies and principles by which our editorial operations are guided, perhaps we should begin where this column did in questioning "the American way of life" and asking what, if any of this is sustainable for future generations of this region and the world?

This should be our guiding principle, both as individuals in our daily lives and as large media conglomerates -- social institutions with the capacity to strongly influence government policies and shape public opinion.

David Coker is an Evansville free-lance writer.