Oil, Coal and the Law: Are You Kidding Me?

Ask not what your government can protect you from; ask rather who can protect you from your government.

Ask not what your government can protect you from; ask rather who can protect you from your government.

This is an update of the December 1 Daily Impact story “Oil and Coal: Above the Law, and Below It.” Read  the story of Mike Roselle’s arrest in West Virginia for having the temerity to petition his government for the redress of a grievance, and of Allenco Energy Company’s immunity from consequences for poisoning the air of a Los Angeles neighborhood. Try to imagine how both of those situations could get worse. Then read this.

Mike Roselle was arrested while trying to bring to the attention of the governor of West Virginia the dangerous toxicity of the dust spewed over much of the state by mountaintop-removal mining of coal. He went to the entrance of the governor’s mansion (which is paid for by the taxpayers of the state) and asked via the intercom provided there for visitors to give the governor a sample of the dust for analysis. He was immediately swarmed by police, locked in a police cruiser and taken to jail. As the cruiser left, he described a Keystone-Kops scene in the parking lot where a circle of desperate cops thumbed through the Code of West Virginia trying to decide on what charge they had just arrested him. By the time they booked him, they had decided. Trespass.

He was kept in jail for six days. The maximum penalty for trespass is 24 hours. For three of those days he was in a holding cell with a dozen drunks, gangsters and offenders who had been swept off the streets of Charleston. The other half of his time was in solitary confinement (he says he had committed no offense) or on suicide watch. (“Do you think I’m going to commit suicide for trespassing?” he asked, incredulous.) His jailers deprived him of heat, of sleep, of dignity. His harrowing account — please read it, all of it — sounds like it happened in Guantanamo Bay.

Let us stipulate here that Mike Roselle is a professional pain in officialdom’s ass. He’s an activist whose favorite gig is to get arrested. Once arrested, he does not cooperate with his captors — he would not speak to the magistrate who was trying to arraign and release him until, Roselle said, he had spoken with his lawyer. Had they asked (as one of his cellmates did) he would have had to admit that he did not have a lawyer. But they didn’t ask.

Should we allow his unconventional personality to distract us from the cause that has made him an activist? His community of Rock Creek, coated daily by the dust from the explosions of mountaintop removal, has the highest mortality rate in the United States. It is apparent that people are sick and dying from this dust. Peer reviewed studies confirm its toxicity. Is Mike Roselle right to petition his government for help cancelled by the fact that he is a pain in the ass?

Just to be consistent: the American Revolution is hereby cancelled.

Now to California, where Allenco’s urban oil field made a whole neighborhood sick, sickened the EPA inspectors who came to check it out, and thus far has suffered no official consequences of any kind. Facing a rising tide of national criticism, it voluntarily shut down “to appropriately address any concerns,” as the CEO put it. It sounded like he was just checking to see if there were any concerns.

The agency primarily responsible for policing Allenco’s treatment of the air is something called the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Its chief is Barry Wallerstein. At a town hall meeting in the neighborhood last week, Wallerstein sounded like Allenco’s chief public relations officer, which he may well be when he retires from the public trough.

“The company.” said Wallerstein reverently, “takes the community’s concerns seriously.” Which is nice of them, especially since the EPA team that came to check out the community’s concerns — which had been totally ignored for three years — was overcome by fumes. The company, Wallerstein continued, is modifying its operation to prevent leaks. Wow, what a concept. You might think that its operation should have been designed in the first place to prevent leaks of toxic fumes, but that seems not to occur to the Air Quality Management guy. All should be well, he said, in a few months.

The Los Angeles County Health Department has a slightly different view. “Every square inch of that field must be examined — pipes, sumps, valves, even oil well casings —to find sources of emissions,” county Environmental Health Director Angelo Bellomo said. “Then the company must decide whether to invest in the best available technology to abate those odors, or shut the facility down.”

The County Health Department, Wallerstein pointed out, does not have jurisdiction. Thus Allenco remains above the law. Leaving the law free to incarcerate more people like Mike Roselle.


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One Response to Oil, Coal and the Law: Are You Kidding Me?

  1. SomeoneInAsia says:

    I am reminded of an ancient Chinese account of a government official who memorialized the throne repeatedly to seek redress for a great injustice, only to be ignored by the Emperor. Eventually the official confronted the Emperor personally in the Imperial Court while bringing in an empty coffin. Basically with the coffin he was sending the Emperor the message: I am prepared to meet death in upholding justice, so do what you will with me, I don’t care. I’ve even got a coffin prepared for myself now. The story had a happy ending: the Emperor was so impressed by the official’s courage and commitment to justice that he relented.

    It’s a tragic commentary on our species that throughout history and in every culture various forms of human evil have always come into existence which invariably have had to be confronted at great personal costs to those with the courage to confront them. And even then often the evils refuse to go away.