It was one of the worst water crises in America, but it got very little attention. In 2014, 7,500 gallons of a highly toxic chemical leaked from a one-inch hole at the bottom of a storage tank and into the nearby Elk River. The leak occurred a mile upstream from the intake of the area’s major water treatment plant. Efforts to contain the chemical were laughable and the water treatment facility was not duly notified.
Residents were subsequently advised not to drink, cook, or bathe in the water. Up to 300,000 residents were affected. School systems were closed. Eight days after the spill, the owner of the storage tank filed for bankruptcy.
Following the spill, the state identified 50,000 storage tanks as possible contamination risks and enacted regulations requiring inspections. Criminal charges were filed against the President of the company. Class action lawsuits were filed against the company, though the bankruptcy left little money to compensate the victims.
Then the 2016 election occurred. Many of the regulations were dismantled by the new anti-government majority in the legislature. Inspections were decreased to the extent that it would take 23 years to inspect all the identified chemical tanks. Numerous exemptions were written into the legislation. The argument for the deregulation was that it would remove costly oversight of the tanks.
The deregulation was supported by the Governor. Any chance of redress in the state’s conservative supreme court was nominal. Many of the federal regulations that might have helped were removed by executive orders, given the new deregulatory push of the new federal administration.
What should be the role of the government for protecting the basic needs of its citizens? Certainly, clean water would be classified as a basic need for human life. What can citizens do when all three branches of government disregard needed protections?
It’s easy to conclude that citizens should vote against the elected leaders who don’t, or won’t, protect their basic rights. But elections aren’t typically waged over concrete policy issues like clean water. In fact, campaigns are almost exclusively run to focus on hot-button issues that appeal to people’s emotions. Citizens often get drawn into disputes over topics from the Culture Wars rather than focusing on their own protection or basic needs.
Just imagine what could be done to protect basic human needs when those needs are neglected by those we put in control of government. What if basic human needs were protected as unassailable rights, such as those spelled out in the Constitution? What if those rights placed duties upon the government, obligations to protect those rights and meet those basic needs? Just imagine how the protection of basic human rights might be raised to the forefront of election decisions in place of wedge issues.
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“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.