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Erich Pica Headshot

The New Normal?

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Last month, LG & E was caught dumping coal ash into the Ohio River in Kentucky. Soon after, a fuel barge spills 170,000 gallons of oil into Galveston Bay, Texas. Followed closely by an, as yet, incalculable amount of crude oil into Lake Michigan just south of Chicago.

Is this the new normal?

Every day, it seems, we learn of a new environmental disaster driven by the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels. If the fossil fuel industry had to report all of its accidents or ways that it is destroying our environment, the report may very well read an egregious "0 days since the last incident" perpetually. In which other areas of our lives is this acceptable? Certainly not in car accidents, homicides, smoking-related deaths, drug-use, work place injuries. General Motors has been called in for a congressional hearing for a safety recall, but why has the fossil fuels industry received a relatively free pass?

I have a two-year-old son who will attend school in the coming years, where he will learn about American geography. I wonder how long until we start defining our landscape and waterways by the environmental disasters that have ruined them? To the south, there's the Dan River in North Carolina, into which Duke Energy released 82,000 tons of coal ash on February 2. To the west, you can see Alaska's Prince William Sound, whose shores still contain thousands of gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years ago. And in the Gulf of Mexico, we mark the 2010 BP gusher that claimed 11 workers' lives when the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, sank and spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude, likely damaging the Gulf ecosystem forever. Now in Lake Michigan, where I spent many summers on the beach, the fresh drinking water to millions is fouled by oil. It seems that as the environmental and human toll from these accidents increases, our government -- and perhaps the public -- is becoming desensitized. We are still awaiting new rules to regulate coal ash waste. There has been very little reform of the rules governing oil drilling. We continue to allow fracking companies to tear up land and contaminate water. More discouraging than the lack of a government response is the laissez-faire attitude the news media and the general public seem to show these events, until it affects them personally. Where are the protests, the media exposés, the citizen voices demanding accountability from the fossil fuel industry for abusing our clean air, clean water and polluting our environment?

I do not believe that we should have to accept environmental pollution as the new normal. I believe that we can and should do better than accept a fossil fuel industry that is destined to fail its customers and the environment with repeated toxic spills and emissions.

We are better than President Obama's 'all of the above' energy strategy, which offers little more than business as usual. We can listen to the 97 percent of scientists who say that climate change is real and will be deadly for the human species unless we act right now -- not in 2030.

We are better than exporting the causes of climate change. Instead of expanding rail and shipping projects to export coal and crude oil to other countries, we can assume our environmental responsibility by leaving fossil fuels in the ground and taking immediate steps to ensure a more healthy and just future for our children.

We are told repeatedly that America has an addiction to fossil fuels. But is it the citizens who are addicted or those who most directly and repeatedly benefit from the industry's contributions? By my observation, the citizens are being victimized. Yet, all over the nation, people aren't standing for it anymore, and they are turning out in masses to demand political action to end the harmful practices and impacts of the fossil fuel industry. Citizens in Nebraska stopped the Keystone XL pipeline from passing over the Ogallala Aquifer which provides 30 percent of the nation's supply of drinking water. People in California are fighting to ban the dangerous and wasteful practice of fracking one city at a time. More than 250 rallies and protests involving students, activists, members of the clergy, elected officials, businesses, farmers, landowners and others have added to the chorus of Americans rejecting pollution as the cost of doing business. Students around the country are leading a fossil fuel divestment campaign to challenge their social footing in the United States and globally.

People in communities large and small are planting gardens, reducing their fuel consumption, going carless when possible, taking advantage of the latest energy efficiency plans for their homes and generally trying to kick the habit. These spills, leaks, explosions and disasters are the unsightly and deadly track marks of our fossil fuel addiction. We can continue to treat the symptoms of our addiction or we can cure the disease. It's time to make good on our promises to combat climate change and to evolve into a country that flourishes on clean, renewable energy and ensures a prosperous future for the generations to come. It's time to make clean and renewable the new normal.