By: Leija Helling, Community Organizing Intern
On Monday afternoon between Zoom meetings, I set out for a walk around my Boston neighborhood and opened the front door to a hazy sky. The air felt thick and smelled like a backyard barbecue. I stood in confusion for a moment, and then in disbelief: wildfire smoke.
News headlines confirmed that smoke from wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada had taken the jet stream to the east coast and settled over major cities like Boston and New York. Never before had I seen the Boston city skyline blurred out, a reddish haze covering the athletic fields at my university campus, or a deep orange sun. Air quality alerts had been issued across the upper east coast, warning people to stay indoors, especially children, the elderly and those with respiratory and cardiovascular health conditions. I’d been hearing horror stories about the unprecedented wildfire season tearing across Oregon, California, and British Columbia, but to see fires 3,000 miles away affecting air quality in my home city so significantly provoked new feelings of shock and urgency.
Folks on the west coast know intimately how intense, long-lasting, and dangerous wildfire seasons have become in recent years. But for western fires to cause the worst air quality New York City has seen in 15 years, to bring unhealthy PM2.5 levels to swaths of the east coast, highlights just how far the effects of corporate negligence and industry-fueled climate change reach. With extreme heat and dry conditions fueling fires that have already burned at least 1.3 million acres across 13 western states, it’s clearer now than ever that reactionary band-aid solutions won’t be enough. When PG&E, California’s largest power company, cuts costs by leaving flammable brush around their power lines, they start fires that wipe entire towns off the map. These are the consequences of corporate greed. And to fight, we must take power into our hands.
This spring and summer, the infrastructure plans debated by Congressional leaders have offered a glimmer of hope that, if we come together and make our voices heard, we can indeed hold big industries accountable for the harm they cause. For instance, President Biden’s infrastructure proposal includes measures to make sure polluters, not the public, pay to clean up toxic waste sites from industry. But the infrastructure negotiations have also demonstrated the massive obstacles we’re up against. Big industries, especially chemical, oil and gas, hold excessive amounts of power in our political process. As long as Senators’ votes can be bought by big oil, our system will allow corporations to keep putting people’s lives at risk for the sake of profit.
From worsening wildfires to the 40-year backlog of Superfund toxic waste sites, there are a whole lot of corporate messes worth getting mad about right now. Let’s channel that anger toward naming names, building local power, and calling on our elected leaders to fight for the people they’re supposed to represent. Right now, I’m fighting to #MakePollutersPay alongside people across the country who live, breathe, and raise families while industry’s toxic dumps sit in their backyards. It’s about time to start holding polluters accountable for their actions.
Photo Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty
By Stephen Lester. Nearly 10 months ago, a Norfolk Southern train with more than 150 cars, many of which contained toxic chemicals, derailed in East