By Matt Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Project, April 2, 2018
Consider the words Abraham Lincoln offered in his concluding remarks in his Annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862:
“We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’… No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. … We – even we here – hold the power and bear the responsibility.”
Lincoln was putting the country’s leadership on notice to remember the duties and responsibilities that come with holding power. Leaders are entrusted to act in the interests of the entire citizenry as part of their stewardship responsibility. Lincoln reminded every leader that they are fellow citizens – history will be the judge of the actions that they take.
This message serves as a reminder to every elected official – appointed professional governmental staff and community members who make decisions – that with their roles come the responsibility to act on behalf of the people whom they represent. This means acting in ways to “do better” for the common good. The true responsible leader is the one who becomes the steward and the champion of the vision for a prosperous future that upholds standards for the common good.
True leadership also involves standing up for rights guaranteed in Article I, Section 27 of our Pennsylvania State Constitution:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
These values and rights must be defended every generation. As stewards of the Commonwealth, we must call on elected officials and leaders to embrace their duty to protect what citizens have entrusted into their care. They must be reminded thatPennsylvania’s public natural resources are common property to all of the people, not just special interests, and that this common property is not just for people living now, but for generations to come.
We live in a time when many of our region’s leaders and agencies are not exercising these responsibilities. Many regional municipalities have made decisions to permit natural gas extraction related operations in their communities under the pressure of special interests. Some communities are hiring solicitors who have worked for industry and who are helping to fast-track permitting to accommodate industry.
Leaders are not fulfilling their duties and alerting communities of how their rights are being put at risk. In several cases, citizens are forced to abandon their rights. Others who wish to participate in public dialog are shamed for wanting to speak up or excluded outright from public processes. Community members are waking up to find that many decisions to permit the growth of industry operations have already been made, before people have been allowed to ask questions or learn about the risks.
We see the list growing of negative consequences for leaders and communities who short-circuit this process – increased air pollution and negative health outcomes, damaged water supplies and destruction to land and property. The state’s permitting process for air pollution reduction has been compromised. Meanwhile, a network of pipelines continues to weave its way across our landscape, putting homes, schools and communities at risk. Sensitive wetlands will be destroyed. Recreational assets like bike trails will be dangerous places to recreate. People will be forced to weigh the risks to their water supply.
Our rights are being weakened, and in many cases, the effects will be irreversible.
This week the DEP is holding public hearings concerning the Falcon pipeline in Beaver, Washington and Allegheny counties. It is imperative for people come to these hearings, remind our community leaders of their responsibilities and defend our common property, our commonwealth’s natural resources, to be used for the benefit for all of us and for generations to come.
It is imperative for people to contact their municipal governments and ask whether the municipality has restrictive zoning on unconventional gas drilling and operations—confined to industrial zones and subjected to strict conditions. Now is the time to act.
Our right to clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of our environment must be defended every generation. We must heed the call. We hold the power and bear the responsibility. Will we be judged with honor or dishonor, to the latest generation?