On Wednesday, New Hampshire Public Radio reported that the state is poised to spend millions of dollars to improve drinking water quality in communities across the state (www.tinyurl.com/nhh2o).
The projects will target MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination, in part by connecting residents who have polluted private wells to municipal water supplies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers both MTBE and PFOA to be possible carcinogens, but there is uncertainty about the levels of exposure that produce elevated risk of illness in humans.
According to Robert Scott, commissioner of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, Atkinson, Derry, Hampstead, Litchfield, Plaistow, Salem and Wyndham are among the towns most affected by the groundwater contamination, although there are others. Certainly, residents in these communities deserve help.
Although the money for these projects will come from a settlement with ExxonMobil over MTBE groundwater contamination that began in the late 1970s, the multimillion-dollar initiative highlights a fundamental vulnerability in our approach to environmental problems.
Too often, we react to environmental degradation after it has already occurred rather than preventing it from happening in the first place.
Why is this the case? In part, the current system is designed to facilitate profit-making by powerful corporate actors who have little interest in protecting the rights of nature or the rights of citizens.
State regulations and the permitting process may attempt to limit environmental harms, but they inevitably concede that some environmental harm will occur by setting allowable limits for chemical contaminants, cleared or paved land, particulates released into the air, wetlands impacts, or water pumped from community groundwater supplies.
When businesses exceed these limits or when health, environmental, or infrastructure problems develop, the typical approach is to launch expensive, multiyear remediation efforts well after the damage has already been inflicted.
More broadly, this is not just about a vulnerability in our approach to environmental protection. The degradation of nature highlights a more fundamental vulnerability in our democratic system. Residents in Atkinson, Litchfield, Plaistow and elsewhere are dealng with health and environmental threats generated by the routine operation of business and the routine operation of the state. But the citizens of these communities could not prevent the activities that produced these unwanted outcomes. State preemption subordinates community priorities to the goals of state agencies and elected officials.
A growing number of New Hampshire communities are addressing this vulnerability, along with towns and cities across the nation, by passing local Rights-Based Ordinances. RBOs give voice to local concerns by defending the rights of nature before harm can be inflicted and by delineating the scope of corporate activity within municipal boundaries.
The New Hampshire Community Rights Network (NHCRN) supports these efforts and has worked to return power to people and their local governments. The NHCRN is also working with Rep. Ellen Read (Rockingham, District 17), who has sponsored a state constitutional amendment to protect New Hampshire communities’ authority to defend the welfare of their citizens and the rights of nature.
Cliff Brown is a member of the The New Hampshire Community Rights Network from Portsmouth.