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Caught between Toxic Clouds and Contaminated Ground
Visits to Ukraine and Presidential Priorities
Yesterday, as residents of East Palestine, Ohio continued to suffer, President Biden made a public relations stop in Kyiv, Ukraine. Dealing with dismal public approval ratings near the lowest of his presidency, Biden knew what his Ukraine trip would produce: photo-ops conveying resolve, a change in the conversation, and praise from his friends in the media. The New York Times fawned over what Biden’s visit meant for normal Ukrainians. CNN gushed that Biden has “no shortage of courage.”
On social media, some members of the press raved that Biden and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky bravely walked through the streets of Kyiv as air raid sirens sounded. State visits usually don’t have a soundtrack but this one did. Zelensky knows how to put on a show in spite of the obvious: there was no “air raid” and no need for the sirens. WWE ring entrances are more authentic. At least the wrestlers admit to playing pretend.
Thankfully, one reporter (on CNN, no less) was kind enough to provide context on the sirens.
Biden’s visit to Kyiv – a place where life somewhat continues as normal – was made possible by strict US and Ukrainian security. Not that it was particularly risky. Moscow knew of the trip. Kyiv wasn’t otherwise under heavy bombardment. His pilgrimage follows in the footsteps of luminaries like Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain and Ben Stiller and Joffrey from Game of Thrones. He’s almost a year too late to hear Bono and The Edge perform an acoustic set at the Kyiv metro.
Is that courage, to go to a city where your safety is guaranteed and the result is only political upside?
What about visiting a town where you might be confronted with your failures and addressed by Americans caught between clouds of toxic gas and contaminated ground?
Going to East Palestine. Now that would take some courage.
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I follow those questions with another: what does environmental equity look like?
The answer is East Palestine, Ohio.
Last week, President Biden signed an Executive Order empowering federal agencies to advance “environmental justice” and to transfer federal investments to “historically disadvantaged communities.” This was merely the continuation of Biden’s focus on environmental equity, something his Administration has labeled as “the most ambitious environmental justice agenda every undertaken” by an American President. Federal agencies across the Executive Branch have been tasked with launching or strengthening their “equity and justice offices, task forces, strategies and policies.”
Equity has its winners and it has its losers. It’s a political calculation based on special interests and constituencies and influence. Those we might call the “deciders” – under this Administration, they are those who consider you to be their political adversary – are looking you up and down, assessing who you are and where you come from, and making their decision accordingly.
After years of increasingly hostile sentiment to their fellow Americans, you can’t help but think that the losers in the equity game are chosen with pleasure. To them it is justice delayed. The collective guilty getting their punishment of withheld federal funds and a tepid federal response to a very real environmental crisis that may take decades to be remedied.
If there was any region deserving of environmental justice – or any justice, really – you’d have to think it would be this part of Eastern Ohio, just thirty minutes south of the once-thriving Youngstown. Incomes are below the national average. Manufacturing isn’t what it once was thanks to federal policies. The residents will get by – of that there is no question. Their predecessors farmed and bootlegged and picked coal and clay out of the ground by the ton. They may not be able to move, not having a buyer for their toxic homes, but they’ll get by.
Not that they can expect much help.
Expectations are low because they understand history and priorities. There are no lobbyists for small towns. There are no sweetheart deals. Those doors don’t revolve – they are nailed shut. Pete Buttigieg won’t be leaving the Department of Transportation for the East Palestine City Council. There are no “East Palestine” trade deals or multi-billion-dollar aid packages announced on the front pages. There are no photo-ops with King Joffrey. Bono and The Edge won’t be playing “With or Without You” in front of the East Palestine Municipal Building.
And there are certainly no visits from the President. What’s the message he’s sending?
It, and they, are not worth the trouble – or the risk.