01/23/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Toxic Greed: The Environment's Biggest Threat

West Virginia just taught us a ghastly lesson in chemistry -- the formula for a toxic compound far more deadly than the coal-processing poison 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM). Here's what you do -- mix out-of-control industrial and political greed, then throw in the catalyst: a huge dose of universally-accepted misinformation. What you are left with are the makings of a catastrophic environmental disaster.

One sad irony of the Kanawah Valley chemical spill disaster is that West Virginians deeply love their natural environment. The state's unique wilderness beauty is clearly prized by every son and daughter of the Mountain State. At the same time, West Virginians, like all Americans, need to be able to provide their families the food, shelter, clothing, health care, and everything else that makes life better than simply adequate. West Virginians, in short, need jobs.

No one wants devastating chemical spills, toxic air quality or waterways so poisoned they can't support life. Paradoxically, too many of us are also passionate enemies of safety inspectors, quality standards, laws that protect the environment, or local agencies that help safeguard our health.

Why? Because industry and politicians who protect the mightiest and most destructive money interests have convinced us that anything inconveniencing corporations or causing them to spend a dime to make their processes safe or compliant is to be opposed at all costs.

Regulation of any kind, we're told constantly, costs jobs and slows the economy. Making sure federal, state and local government agencies turn a blind eye to violations is the only way to keep our economy humming.

This is so untrue. For years, my colleagues in the environmental movement and I have been proving over and over again that safeguarding the environment actually goes hand in hand with providing more jobs. This isn't theory: it's proven fact.

Whereas a state can destroy its natural bounty and employ people in that destruction for a while, jobs associated with these ecological assets disappear eventually. When there's not enough forest left, there are no more timbering jobs left, either. When the most valuable coal and minerals have been depleted, what's left is a jobless moonscape. And the generations who inherit this depleted environment, unattractive to both residents and tourists, will probably not be comforted by knowing that in our time, at least clever corporations made money thereby.

We've proved the case over the past forty years in Oregon, where the public had formerly accepted an enormous falsehood: namely, that any restrictions on timbering would be the kiss of death to people's jobs and the state's economy. The opposite proved true. Responsible timbering and tourism have both flourished.

The same applies to West Virginia right now. The public must reject the lie that regulating coal and chemical production in even the slightest way means job loss and economic hardship. Companies must be compelled, through the enforcement of laws already on the books, to clean up their acts. They'll have to spend money in the short term to comply with EPA regulations and other laws, but in the long term they'll realize even greater profits from cleaner, safer processes, and they won't have to spend money cleaning up multi-billion dollar environmental horrors. And tourists (increasingly essential to West Virginia's economy) will continue to enjoy the glories of the Mountain State's outdoors.

These are some of the practical arguments in favor of curbing out-of-control industrial destruction. More compelling to me, though, is the moral argument.

Is it right for only a small percentage of the human population to reap the fruits of our spectacular planet for their own financial gain? Of course not -- the idea is obscene. For centuries, brave Americans have fought to keep the forces of commercial greed from wrecking our natural environment -- now we must do the same.

Forget the practical arguments. This should be enough: whether or not we say no to industries that operate with impunity all around us is a moral choice. To let our politicians continue to protect companies like Freedom Industries of the Kanawha Valley from any inspections or guidelines whatsoever is profoundly immoral.