Public Health and the Environment

Updated: Jan 17


What moved us to take up this project was our curiosity and concern about the broad public health impacts of one company’s operations – over time, in many places, under different patterns of ownership, and across political administrations. We were haunted by questions: How do we get the measure of a company’s impact on our health and environment? How can we learn to be more attentive, vigilant and effective in determining whether corporations are accountable, transparent and non-damaging in their operations?


Our project is motivated by the hope that each of us will activate our curiosity and democratic right-to-know in order to protect public health in our communities. Our journey into the consequences of living and working with ASARCO has opened our eyes to how little we know about our corporate neighbors and how they impact us. We’ve also learned that even as people gather information, including clear and undeniable evidence of harm done to them, their neighbors, co-workers and community, that information alone is not effective in holding corporations accountable. We have been witness to and partners with four communities damaged by ASARCO, but there are many more sites in the US and globally that endure public health problems. We hope to continue learning how they are responding to this ongoing, unrelenting challenge. As we focus on the path of one company and the many ways it has affected public health and the environment, we are interested in the work of others who also try to make visible the damage caused by corporations which put profit above community health, safety and well-being. A few mammoth companies – BP, Shell, Exxon, Cargill, Syngenta, WR Grace – have gotten the public’s attention, but there are many more examples of corporate behavior that threaten public health, workplace health and safety, and the environment, and there are many important stories of activists organizing to protect their communities that never achieve public recognition.


Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine demonstrated how the globalizing, corporatized economy either creates or takes advantage of catastrophes that jolt communities, regions or nations. Severe disruptions, whether natural or orchestrated, become opportunities for corporate decision-makers (and in some cases, government collaborators) to take advantage of a “softened” and exhausted public. These massive disruptions, from an economic recession or depression to a geologic rupture like an earthquake, or a climatic event like Hurricane Katrina, have consistently been used to weaken the public sphere, provide anopen field for corporations, and exacerbate an already uneven playing field.


We agree that shocking disruptions present special opportunities to those in positions of economic power. But over the longer arc of time, there is another process taking place, a more subtle pattern of erosion of land and people. We see this in the legacy of environmental and health impacts from mining and smelting, the foundation of resource extraction and industrial production in the U.S. and virtually all economies: in Appalachia; the Southwest U.S.; Ruston, Washington; Kellogg, Idaho; Libby, Montana; Cananea, Mexico; Northeast Brazil, and many other parts of the globe, we find damaged landscapes, polluted air and waterways-- and pervasive health issues caused by chronic, persistent exposure to mining contaminants.


As researchers, filmmakers and teachers we are attempting to learn about, document and support the efforts of mining and smelting communities to understand the public and environmental health risks they face and resist further erosion of their rights to health and safety. We are not opposed to mining. Anyone who lives in the modern world and benefits from electricity or mass transportation, or uses a phone or computer would be hypocritical to claim they want to see an end to mining in the U.S. or globally. But many of us are also accustomed to, reliant on and largely sheltered from the trials of the miner, the smelter worker and the communities that live near mines and smelters. We have not seen or experienced the consequences to people and land from more than a century of the aggressive mining and smelting operations that are so central to modern economies. Because mining reigns supreme as an essential bedrock of the world economy, very little has developed in the way of alternative or appropriate technologies, environmental controls, worker protection or economic penalties to counter the damage done by mining and smelting.


We urge people to follow Klein’s call to be attentive and assertively responsive to the “shocks” of the world economy. At the same time we need to cultivate a steady look at what is relentlessly in the background. In public and environmental health, practitioners are taught to monitor, or at least think about changes they observe against some “background,” some baseline of what is considered normal, healthy or ecologically sound. What we are finding is that the “background” is ever moving or receding as certain extractive/industrial activities quietly press on, while those of us who live our lives far from impacted areas pay little attention.


Next: The Movement for Public Health


RESOURCES:


Klein, Naomi. Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Vintage Canada, 2008.















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