In my past two columns, we’ve discussed why the Founding Fathers gave corporations a very short leash in our early history. Yet, in just over 100 years, the tables have been turned, allowing corporations to take charge of nearly every facet of our lives.

However, citizens in a growing number of communities are working to change the balance of power through passing laws limiting the authority of corporations to influence health and safety laws.

Several years ago, members of the N.C. Legislature decided the best way to create jobs and protect citizens was to eviscerate laws protecting citizens from poisoned water, polluted air and the harm caused by coal ash. They took their regulatory reform dog and pony show on the road to encourage citizens to support their dubious agenda. At most stops, citizens responded that they weren’t asking for a “race to the bottom” on environmental rules, they just wanted agencies to listen to them and to minimize duplicative bureaucracy.

When they came to Henderson County, the largest public hearing on their regulatory reform clown show, two-thirds of the attendees made it clear they did not want their state to lose the rules that had put North Carolina in the top tier of states that protect their natural resources. Despite the mantra of legislators and former Gov. Pat McCrory that they were “cutting red tape” as a result of “stifling business regulations,” it became clear their real goal was to protect Duke Energy from liability.

Over many years, Duke had successfully weakened many environmental rules by throwing money at legislators and lobbyists, ensuring that it could pollute with impunity. Both Democrats and Republicans allowed Duke to pollute the ground near its plants without incurring penalties.

However, Duke was worried that should a major disaster occur, it would be on the hook, so it lobbied legislators in 2013 to get a 330-word provision in a regulatory overhaul bill, enabling Duke to avoid costly cleanup of contaminated groundwater leaching from its unlined dumps into nearby rivers, lakes and homeowner drinking wells.

This is just one of many “reforms” that have weakened rules to benefit stockholders instead of citizens.

A bill up for consideration this fall, House Bill 374, would limit who can challenge an environmental permit, would eliminate public notice on extensions to landfill agreements, and would essentially kill coal ash recycling requirements.

Under current law, all people or groups who could be harmed by a permitted activity can challenge a N.C. Department of Environmental Quality permit, but under this new law, complainants would be limited to only those who had previously submitted public comment, making it easier for polluters like Duke to continue their unsavory practices.

Regulatory reform has nothing to do with streamlining agencies or creating less burdensome rules (oftentimes “reform” creates more and confusing rules). It’s really about creating industry loopholes that loosen protections to public health and safety.

We pay taxes that presumably ensure that criminals trying to steal our hard-earned money are jailed. We also assume that white-collar criminals committing crimes with bigger implications on our children’s health will be pursued. We expect our legislators to act for the public benefit, but when they don’t, we need to hold them accountable.

When large corporations like Duke pull strings resulting in new laws that protect only themselves, citizens have a duty and obligation to demand that government once again responds to the “consent of the governed.”

Whether it’s coal ash, hog farms or corporate dumping into waterways, our rules maintain our quality of life. Communities throughout the country have challenged corporations’ attempt to steal the people’s voice by passing laws that nullify the corporate takeover of democracy. Why can’t we do this here?

No matter our politics, many of us are concerned that our voice is vanishing in the face of an overwhelming corporate stranglehold that controls our lives. It’s time we take advantage of successful recent precedents like those in Pennsylvania to take back our communities from the hands of greed. History and precedent are on our side.

 

Times-News columnist David Weintraub is a culture preservationist and environmental troublemaker who can be reached at (828) 692-8062 or www.saveculture.org.