By: Tony Aguilar, Community Organizing Intern

Time and time again, it seems as though legislation always swings in the direction of big industries–especially the chemical, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical industries–rather than in the direction of the general public. A small number of pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to control the market on drugs and thereby control the prices, making it more and more difficult for Americans to get the drugs that they need. Toxic chemicals continue to pollute our environment and harmful drilling practices like hydraulic fracturing often go unchecked and unchallenged by our government. In a nation where the government is supposed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, something seems to have gone awry.

The answer to why or how this has happened is probably clear to many by now. These industries have become so large and powerful that they seem to have a stronghold on the government. So, what exactly is at stake here for the American people? Well, in addition to all of the environmental damage that these industries are doing to the planet, they are also putting the lives of millions of Americans at risk in order to make more money. Not only are these industries putting lives at risk for the sake of money, but at the thousands of sites across the country where toxic chemicals are polluting communities, the government cannot seem to find it in the budget to clean up these sites and protect public health. Laws that hold polluters responsible for the cleanup continue to give these industries the benefit of the doubt.

Any work to clean up areas where people are being exposed to toxic chemicals is done at a snail’s pace and the government agencies that were created to help protect us from environmental harms often take the side of industry as well.  Recent evidence has been uncovered showing that the EPA, the nation’s defense against environmental dangers, has even approved some chemicals that have been shown to be harmful to humans and the environment to be used in hydraulic fracturing–again, giving the oil and gas industry the benefit of the doubt without taking every precaution to ensure public safety. Many chemicals that are released into our environment and our communities have been related to public health hazards yet they are approved by the EPA on the grounds that the evidence is incomplete or that a causal connection cannot be made between the chemicals and illnesses in humans. Rather than erring on the side of caution, the government gives polluting industries every opportunity to make a profit, while disregarding possible risks to public health.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980 was created to hold polluters accountable for their pollution by charging a tax on polluting companies that would be used to clean up areas of waste and toxic contamination. Since this “polluter-pay” tax expired in 1995, the average number of cleanups completed per year fell from 71 to just 12, leaving more toxic chemicals in our air, water, and soil posing a threat to communities all over the country. 

Despite these grim circumstances, there is still hope in our future. These industries have a daunting power that seems insurmountable, but we as the People, have a power that is not to be taken lightly. Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a provision to reinstate this “polluter-pay” tax which would result in more money for the government to clean up communities that have been affected by decades of industrial pollution. This is just one effort in the fight to shift the priority onto the people, where it always should have been, and away from profit-hungry industry. 

Although this signals a glimmer of hope, we as the people need to make sure we exercise our power as the chemical, oil and gas industries are sure to do everything in their power to ensure that the polluter-pay tax does not make it into legislation. This new bill will be yet another test of where America’s priorities truly lie.

Photo Credit: Stuart Villanueva/The Daily News file photo