By J.W. Randolph
Editors note: Students from Appalachian State University have been flooding the offices of Appalachian Voices for nights we call “Pizzas and Vistas,” where they mobilize dozens of volunteers to advance Appalachian Voices’ clean air campaign. We thought one night per week would suffice, but so many students converged on the office that they now work two nights every week, late into the evening. Appalachian Voices intern and organizer extraordinaire JW Randolph has been leading the charge and tells their story here.
The days are good, but Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Appalachian State University are better. Tucked away in the refuge of the Appalachian Voices office, ASU students have gotten together over pizza to embark on a historic effort to fight for clean air. We conduct our campaign in the face of proposed legislation that threatens to weaken federal clean air laws and bring thousands more deaths to North Carolina and across the Southeast.
The White House has been waving a toxic flag around DC with the proposed “Clear Skies Initiative”(CSI) - a severe weakening of current federal clean air laws that would let big polluters off the hook. CSI sets weaker emissions targets at later dates than currently permitted under law. The current Clean Air Act, last amended under George H.W. Bush, has yielded strong improvement in some areas. Not only would CSI slow the positive trends of the last 30 years, but it would undercut North Carolina’s landmark Clean Smokestacks Act by eliminating our ability to hold upwind states accountable for the pollution they send our way.
Retribution has been swift and effective. The clean air movement has spread like wildfire in the High Country, and in just three short weeks the student group has grown from six friends to over 50 volunteers. We now meet twice a week to do what we can at the local level, and to contact other activists and supporters statewide.
We have gone from local town and county resolutions all the way to our representatives in the state General Assembly to help us reach our federal representatives in Washington. How did we do it? With a little organization and a broad message. A few volunteers and an email among friends have helped spur a statewide wake-up call for Senators Dole and Burr. They are learning that they can’t vote to weaken clean air laws without consequences from their constituents.
The speed and momentum of this movement is astounding. And our message to readers of the Appalachian Voice is this: if we can do it, so can you!
Clean air is good for everyone! This is a key point that we communicate when speaking with folks who believe they are looking out for jobs and economic interests by weakening clean air laws. The emerging clean air industry is creating over 5,500 jobs in North Carolina, stimulating the economy, and saving our state billions in medical costs as a result of passing our Clean Smokestacks Act
Sure, clean air is healthy, and aesthetically pleasing. But it makes economic sense too, and that is the message we needed to get out to the public and decision makers. Tourism is our state’s #1 industry, but who wants to vacation to a place where it is almost as unhealthy to breathe as living with a smoker? In everything we do, we have focused our message without compromising integrity and have shown respect for the ideals of everyone. That’s why Republicans and Democrats statewide are coming together on this issue, and sending a strong message to our federal representatives asking them to protect our air.
Senator John Garwood (R) is not your typical environmentalist. He is a representative of some of the most conservative counties (Avery, Alexander, Watauga, Wilkes) in all of North Carolina. We had the opportunity to share lunch with him last week and were faced with an interesting task. Can students have enough stature and cred-ibility to impress this five-term senator on an environmental issue?
Senator Garwood is a strong advocate of education, and beleives deeply in both students and his fellow constituents. So when he heard that there was a large contingent of local constituents and students who were reaching out to him, he leant us an ear – albeit a cautious one. We delivered our position in a context directly related to Senator Garwood’s ideals. We told him we can’t undermine our ability to hold upwind states accountable for the pollution they put in our state, which Clear Skies would do. We told him that the clean air industry has created jobs and stimulated the economy, and that students care about this issue. He was not only receptive, but offered his encouragement and unequivocal support for our cause, including an offer to champion a letter among his colleagues asking our representatives in Washington to uphold both federal and state clean air laws.
Senator Garwood took the initiative to protect his constituents, and has shown courageous leadership in the growing chorus of Republicans calling upon folks in Washington to uphold environmental laws. Senator, if you’ll protect our lungs, we’ve got your back!
Protecting clean air is the most bipartisan issue. Convincing citizens of that is the easy part. The hard part is convincing the people in Washington, who are all too willing to put partisan politics and big industry first. Senator Dole’s and Senator Burr’s positions on proposed legislation that could weaken current laws are (no pun intended...) not exactly clear.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee already voiced his opposition to the Clear Skies Initiative in 2003, and we in North Carolina expect our Senators to show the same courage in voting “NO” on anything that would worsen our air quality! We worked hard to fix the problems in our state with a huge bipartisan passing of the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002, and we don’t want anything that weakens federal clean air laws, undermines our state law, or threatens our health! The #1 charge of our senators is protecting their constituents.
During the last few months we’ve learned a lot. When reaching out, remember to consider your message without compromising your feelings. And remember to aim high, because weakening clean air laws kills thousands across the Southeast every year. While current clean air laws have brought improvement to the wellbeing of our state, there are many improvements that need to be made.