Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Exporting pollution to Dixie

As someone who lived (happily) in Houston, Texas for a year, it kind of gets on my nerves when northerners pick on the South - Houston or LA or the sprawl around Pheonix and Atlanta - as being the cause of the nation's environmental ills. It's true that these cities have big environmental problems - especially air pollution. But these problems are largely caused by industries that Northerners don't want in their own backyards, although we don't mind buying their products.

Let's start with Houston's ship channel (photo at right), home to the largest concentration of oil refineries in the United States. These refineries produce tons of air pollution and greenhouse gases daily and are largely responsible for Houston's notoriously poor air quality. Because of the refineries, Texas's per-capita greenhouse gas production is nearly double that of most northern states.

But we in the northern states are still buying and using those refineries' products. In fact, in the last year that data was available, the average Maine motorist drove 11,348 miles: over 1,000 miles MORE than the average six-shootin', hollerin' Texan (source). Back-to-the-land Vermonters drive even more on a per-capita basis. So not only are we actually responsible for more pollution, we're also doing the dishonorable deed of producing that pollution in a poorer part of the country where more minorities and immigrants live. How could anyone possibly be self-righteous about that?

Similarly, Los Angeles is well known as the smog capital of the nation, but that's largely because of its port, where millions of containers from China get transferred from diesel-burning ships to diesel-burning trucks to supply stores and warehouses all over the country. Without the Port of Los Angeles and its pollution, it would be a lot harder to come by your organic pears from New Zealand, or any of the thousands of other things you buy from across the Pacific.

The Port of Long Beach is starting to assert itself, though. As detailed in this article from the Times, California is placing new regulations on the shippers and truckers who converge on LA to move Asian products to American store shelves.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said, “We’re not going to have kids in Long Beach contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.”

Actually, Mayor, that's been our arrangement for decades now. But best of luck to you, from a well-wisher in the vigorous North.

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