Saturday, January 21, 2006

Taking personal responsibility for a polluting power plant - or not

Alexandria Virginia’s coal fired Mirant power generation plant has now been in the news for some weeks. Apparently, residents in the surrounding area have expressed concern for months about high levels of pollution generated by the plant. But the plant’s owners made little, if any effort, to respond to these concerns, even when they included a strong letter from Virginia’s the Governor Mark Warner. According to web postings the conflict between the Mirant Corporation executives and the residents impacted by their decisions has been long and bitter. Finally Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality ordered the plant shut down.

Last week US Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, overruled the Virginia Department order, citing a concern with maintaining a reliable supply of electricity to Washington DC. But he, along with the Chief Executive Officer of the Mirant Corporation missed an opportunity to take responsibility for their decision rather than externalizing that responsibility to Alexandria residents. I am reminded of proposals for “shortening the loop” between decision makers and the environmental harm they create that surfaced when I first taught a course called Politics and the Environment in 1970.

How different the impact of Secretary Bodman’s proposal would have been had it included a statement that he was immediately renting a home in the pollution impacted area and would be moving there, along with his wife and children and that he had directed Mirant’s Chief Executive to make a similar move. “I will remain there, personally experiencing the consequences of my decision” until the problem is resolved,” his hypothetical statement emphasized."

All to rarely do we see political leaders to take personal responsibility for their decisions, thought they may weep crocodile tears of sympathy for those adversely impacted. And we, the citizens in a democracy, do not hold them accountable. In the case of the Mirant plant, Secretary Bodman could change things and set an example, but probably he won’t.

Too bad.


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