Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Radioactivity, Coincidence and Individual Rights

If you read an older post, you'll know I've been hot on the trail of information regarding the US's latest gold rush - the race to drill a couple of miles into the ground, then horizontally, to suck up natural gas that has never been tapped.

So imagine my surprise when the author of the book "Welcome To Shirley, a memoir of an atomic town" today told me that her next project is a book on the "new gold rush" in her part of Pennsylvania. Yup. Horizontal drilling for natural gas.

Kelly McMaster's book is a good one. It's not a strident anti-nuke book, though after reading it you may think she ought to be a whole lot angrier and more bitter than she sounds. It's the story of a kid growing up in a wrong-side-of-the-tracks town on Long Island who loves where she comes from, and is shocked to discover that not everyone she meets after she leaves is afraid of developing cancer.

Long Island, she says, has a far higher-than-average rate of cancer. And she knows dozens of neighbors, young and old, who have developed some pretty strange cancers...sometimes more than one. And no one's ever said for sure if that's because their neighbor is the Brookhaven Nuclear Laboratory.

There were leaks from Brookhaven's reactors over the years, and the lab sits atop the aquifer which supplies the area's water. Nobody knew. The lab was eventually declared a Superfund site and a new administration was brought in. But McMasters believes the damage was already done.

"So what's your next project?" I asked her.

And that's when we started talking about gas drilling. She said she knows of people whose wells have gone dry once the drilling started. The horizontal fracking process takes millions of gallons of water, combined with some chemicals that, thanks to the federal government's industry-friendly mood, don't have to be disclosed.

"I'm just hoping I can preserve my little piece of property here," she told me.

And that got me thinking about rights we take for granted - but rights that maybe aren't as secure as we think they are.

For instance, HSO and I have a nice house within walking distance to town. There's a little traffic noise and our road is a favorite shortcut for locals, but it's far from busy.

But we noticed the other day that someone had hung pink plastic ribbons on bushes at the border with our neighbor. We assumed maybe they were thinking of putting up a fence. Instead, they stopped HSO the other day at the store.

"What's up with the ribbon? Are you doing some construction or something?"

Turns out the state was out marking boundaries, preparing to do something regarding traffic to a proposed affordable housing development that's going to be built about a quarter of a mile away. Our road isn't the best way to reach it. There's a closer road. But apparently something is being planned that could direct traffic up our street. And no one said a word.

"Don't they have to tell us?" HSO was not pleased.

I used to live in the cutest little schoolhouse in the world on a scenic road in a remote section of Connecticut. No one told me when I was buying it that the summer would be one long jet-engine howl of hoardes of motorcycles. I had to keep my windows closed. Despite that, conversation was impossible when they went by. I know, buyer beware. But really. And the town I lived in argued every year about those bikers.

"They bring business into town," some shop owners said.

"They drive down the value of our homes, make noise that's unbearable and hog up every parking spot in town," the residents countered.

Other merchants weren't so biker-friendly. I heard some say the bikers never bought anything more than coffee or a sandwich. And some said the bikers drove away families who might have shopped in town if it weren't overrun by middle aged men reclaiming their rebel youths.

So whose rights do we protect? The bikers' right to travel freely and make as much noise as they want because they argue it makes them easier to notice, thereby safer from cars? The rights of people who live on the roads they travel, who should have a reasonable assurance of comfort and protection from other people's noise when they're in their own homes? The rights of shopkeepers who have to make a living?

Do we have to sacrifice the rights of people who have bought homes in a neighborhood in favor of the right of affordable housing to others?

Is there a compromise position that protects all of them? Or do I conclude that all of our rights are suspect? Do we only have rights so long as no one else's rights take precedence?

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