Friday, June 26, 2009

Column: Nothing wrong with questioning leaders' decisions

Perry County Herald
June 11, 2009

by: John Allan Clark

Our coverage of the arrangement to transport TVA's coal ash to the Uniontown landfill probably won't win us many friends in Perry County politics. Then again, we didn't have many to begin with. 

One commissioner told our reporter Tuesday night regarding the matter (I'm paraphrasing) that we should "start thinking about how people can make a living in this county instead of sitting over there at that newspaper making a living talking about everything [elected officials] are doing wrong."

The point of "sitting over here talking about what politicians are doing wrong," I hope, is to help prod Perry County toward a time when the doing-wrong no longer happens, or at least not as often. On that day, maybe the people here will have a chance at a better life. 

But is this coal deal wrong, necessarily? I'll be the first to tell you that I don't know. And that's being a lot more honest than some of our leaders have. 

True enough, coal ash was long regarded as fairly harmless. Dump it in the river, throw it on the river in a huge pile, do whatever you want with it. Of course, there was a time when people thought nothing of spreading arsenic on their cotton fields, or blanketing the countryside in DDT to keep the mosquitoes down. Then, we realized that these things might be a little more dangerous, to us as well as to the environment, than we thought. 

It may also be true that the jury is still out on the safety of fly ash: scientists are split on how harmful or harmless it is to humans, but they all agree that as long as you don't breathe it, ingest it, or get it on your skin, you have nothing to worry about. It does, they tell us, contain traces of toxins, mostly from a smorgasbord of heavy metals. 

The problem here is the problem with pretty much any issue in Perry County. This deal was being engineered behind the scenes long before any of us in the general public knew about it, just the way our leaders like it. When civilians found out about the deal and started raising questions about its safety, those questions were rebuffed as always. 

Those who question the wisdom of landfill developers and small-town politicians are the ones who are "not seeing the big picture." The money, we're told, is just too good to pass up. And this stuff is safe anyway, TVA told us so, and all you want to do is get people all riled up over nothing. Is that really why we question?

Or is it because we've seen this happen too many times before, and all those times our concerns have been justified. These issues (like the landfill, the private prison, the county jail project, government projects, and missing public funds) are kept hush-hush by our leaders until the public finally finds out. Then, when we express concern, we're told not to worry, that everything is going to be fine, that those folks asking questions are just trying to confuse and mislead the public. 

But jail construction drags on. Audit after audit after audit shows public funds going unaccounted for. Contracts are awarded to the same shady businesses, and dangerous prisoners escape. 

Don't you think, leaders, that we've earned the right to question your judgement by now? I freely admit that I'm no expert. I ask questions about things in order to better understand them. Experience tells us that this is the best and easiest way to make better decisions in the future. 

I don't know much about the danger posed by fly ash in a landfill. I do know about the danger of an unasked question. 

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