By Cherie Eichholz
and Teresa Méndez-Quigley
Forty-five years ago, largely in response to a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., 20 million Americans united to call for the protection of the environment and public health on the first Earth Day.
Since then, we have observed Earth Day on April 22 as a reminder of the importance of protecting the environment in which we all live and thrive. But Earth Day is more than a call to protect our air, water, and land on one day of the year. It is about a broad and sustained commitment to protect our environment. Without clean air, water, and land, our bodies are compromised and health is put at risk.
In the Philadelphia region, the need to protect health from environmental threats is no less important than it was 45 years ago. With the goal of making Philadelphia the "greenest city in America," Mayor Nutter established the Office of Sustainability during his first year as mayor. Now, near the end of his second term, and on the eve of the primary to select the next mayoral candidates, we face a proposed retreat that seeks to turn Philadelphia back to the 1950s, a city built around a fossil-fuels based manufacturing economy.
The proposal to turn Philadelphia into an energy hub, with its attendant ventures, has been highly touted by industry and several City Council members. The aim is to transform Philadelphia into the Houston of the Northeast, importing and exporting natural gas and oil, ramping up petrochemical manufacturing, and further poisoning what is already some of the dirtiest air in the country. Unfortunately, these same fossil fuels, with their continuously increasing emission of greenhouse gases, are exacerbating climate change as they lead to changing habitats, pollute our environment, and ultimately threaten our health.
Until recently, many of the issues and challenges posed by Pennsylvania's alleged energy boom (including the discovery of petroleum; the mining, processing, and firing of coal; and now the drilling, extraction, and transportation of methane natural gas), have bypassed our community. Only from second-hand accounts do we know what it's like to sacrifice our home and property just to live in a place without drinkable water and jeopardize our health in exchange for income from a fracking well.
However now, with just the proposed development of this energy hub, we are seeing an increase in activities here in our community: new pipelines are being built from Pittsburgh and Northeastern Pennsylvania to Southwest Philly and Marcus Hook; liquefied natural gas export facilities are being considered to ship Marcellus Shale gas to other countries; and the development of fossil-fuel based refineries is being marketed to international investors.
Already, trains are transporting oil through the region in decaying railroad cars, risking derailments and explosions in communities throughout the suburbs and city. To date, two derailments have occurred near the Schuylkill, endangering tens of thousands of Philadelphia residents and workers, including the staffs and patients of Children's Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, and two major universities.
Explosions in West Virginia, Québec (in which 47 people died), and very recently in Northern Illinois, remind us of the grave danger a train derailment poses, including not only the immediate threat of an explosion itself, but the prolonged threat of exposure to harmful chemicals, air and water pollution, and contamination of land.
Our region is lauded because of its incredible natural beauty, tremendous academic potential, and the sustainable opportunities that come with vibrant cities and a world-class populace.
Nutter's extraordinary promise to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the United States demands that our leaders — especially on Council — cease bowing to the baseless promises of the oil and gas industry. The mayor's pledge necessitates that mayoral and Council candidates consider first and foremost the health and well-being of residents and the environment as they consider ventures like the fossil-fuel energy hub.
As health professionals, we remember the catastrophe that prompted the creation of the first Earth Day, and while it's a good time to remind ourselves of the fact that we want a healthier and more sustainable environment, the rubber meets the road on the other 364 days of the year.
Lest Earth Day — and all it embodies — becomes an exercise in futility, it is time for this city and region to decide what kind of future we will forge. Together, we can make Philadelphia a model of clean air, water, land, and a region filled with healthy people and productive workers. But it's up to voters, as well as the next Council and mayor, to lead this charge.
Cherie Eichholz is executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Philadelphia (wwwpsrphila.org). firstname.lastname@example.org
Teresa Méndez-Quigley is PSR's environmental health program director. email@example.com