Two magazine articles I read this weekend featured small towns in Trump-Country (Martinsburg, West Virginia and Grant Township, Pennsylvania) embracing super progressive local policies.
In Martinsburg, located in Berkeley County (which voted for Trump 65 to 28), the community is rallying around harm-reduction reforms to fight the opioid epidemic.
In Grant Township, located in Indiana County (which voted for Trump 65 to 30), the community is fighting fracking by embracing a radical environmental law that argues nature has Constitutional rights.
Is it a liberal media fantasy meme that Trump towns are taking up left wing solutions? (The articles were in the New Yorker & Rolling Stone, respectively.)
Or is it possible that there actually is something larger going on…and that depressed, white small towns are realizing GOP policies crush them? (Martinsburg is 77.5 percent white and Grant Township is 99.5 percent white.)
From “The Addicts Next Door” by Margaret Talbot in the June 5, 2017, New Yorker:
Recently, Martinsburg has begun to treat the heroin crisis more openly as a public-health problem. The police chief, a Chicago transplant named Maurice Richards, had devised a progressive-sounding plan called the Martinsburg Initiative, which would direct support services toward children who appeared to be at risk for addiction, because their families were struggling socially or emotionally. In December, Tina Stride and several other local citizens stood up at a zoning meeting to proclaim the need for a detox center. They countered several residents who testified that such a center would bring more addicts, and more heroin, to their neighborhoods. “I’m here to say that’s already here,” a woman in favor of the proposal said. “It’s in your neighbor’s house, in the bathroom at Wendy’s, in our schools.” She added, “We’re talking about making America great again? Well, it starts here.”
That night, the Board of Zoning Appeals voted to allow a detox center, run by Peter Callahan, the psychotherapist, to occupy an unused commercial building in town. People in the hearing room cheered and cried and hugged one another. The facility will have only sixteen beds and won’t be ready for patients until December, but the Hope Dealer women were thrilled about it. Now they wouldn’t have to drive halfway across the state every time an addict called them up.
John Aldis, who was sitting next to me during the vote, breathed a sigh of relief. He said later, “It’s like that Winston Churchill quote: ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ ”
This spring, Berkeley County started its first needle-exchange program, and other efforts are being made to help addicts survive. The new app that first responders are using to document overdoses allows them to input how many times a patient is given Narcan; when multiple doses are required, the heroin tends to be adulterated with strong synthetics. Such data can help the health department and law enforcement track dangerous batches of drugs, and help warn addicts.
Some Martinsburg residents who had been skeptical of medication-assisted treatment told me that they were coming around to the idea. A few cited the Surgeon General’s report on substance abuse, released in November, which encouraged the expansion of such treatment, noting that studies have repeatedly demonstrated its efficacy in “reducing illicit drug use and overdose deaths.” In Berkeley County, it felt like a turning point, though the Trump Administration was likely to resist such approaches. Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, has dismissed medication-assisted treatment as “substituting one opioid for another.” It was also unclear how most addicts would pay for treatment if the Affordable Care Act was repealed.
From “How a Small Town is Standing Up to Fracking,” by Justin Noble from the May 22 Rolling Stone.
“Americans are often under the belief that the EPA or their local state environmental agency is going to save them from environmental pollution, and that is simply not the case,” says Leila Conners, a documentarian whose 2016 film, We the People 2.0, examines how corporations undermine American democracy. “What people have to realize is that they are participating in a system that is not working. Across our country right now, companies are allowed to dump their waste pretty much for free.”
But as construction on the injection well neared, Wanchisn and the other Grant Township residents began to wonder why they had to accept the EPA’s ruling at all. With the help of outside advocates, the small community landed upon a radical strategy: It adopted an ordinance that granted residents the right to local self-government, essentially seizing the power to bypass the EPA. According to the new laws of their renegade township, not only could humans defend themselves against PGE, but so too could the streams, the salamanders, the hemlock trees, the very soil underground. As outrageous as it might seem, the move thrust Grant Township onto the front line of a new environmental movement: It’s the battle to grant legal rights to nature. And amazingly, it appears to be working.
A few hours from Grant Township, in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, is a small organization called the Community- Environmental Legal Defense Fund. CELDF has a staff of about a dozen and an annual operating budget of just $900,000 (the Sierra Club’s is $100 million). Co-founded in 1995 by an Alabama-born lawyer named Thomas Linzey and his then-partner Stacey Schmader, CELDF began as a traditional environmental firm, helping communities fight toxic projects. But the work was discouraging. CELDF would sue over a problem with a proposal, and the company would submit an amended permit, which was then approved. “We got invited to the White House, and we met Al Gore,” says Linzey. “But all the liberal progressive community cared about was that we were enforcing existing environmental laws. No one seemed to care that the community we were fighting for still got a new toxic-waste incinerator.”
The disconnect led Linzey to recall a landmark 1972 paper he read in law school: “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” “I am quite seriously proposing,” wrote its author, Christopher Stone, “that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment – indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.” Stone defended the theory by urging readers to consider the nation’s dark past: Children as young as eight once worked in American factories; until 1920, women in most states couldn’t vote, serve on juries or sue in court; and 160 years ago, African-Americans were sold on auction blocks. “The fact is, that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable,” wrote Stone. “This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those who are holding rights at the time.”
Under Linzey’s direction, CELDF was transformed into a civil-rights group for the environment. It has since helped about three dozen communities across the country draft laws to grant legal rights to nature. They have fought the oil-and-gas industry, factory farms, sludge haulers and other polluters. The plan, says Linzey, is to inject the idea of rights of nature into the national dialogue by working community by community. The ultimate goal is to work with legislatures to introduce rights-of-nature language into state constitutions and, eventually, the U.S. Constitution.
Wanchisn contacted CELDF in April 2014. Initially, the conversation did not go well. An energetic Pennsylvania organizer named Chad Nicholson explained to her the group’s rights-of-nature mission. “It was like he was talking Greek,” says Wanchisn. “We butted heads.”
But Nicholson also offered insight into Grant Township’s experience with the EPA. “The regulatory system is cooked,” he told Wanchisn. “Its DNA does not allow communities to actually say no to things and protect their environment. Communities are then left arguing over the details of a permit granted to a corporation, but what a permit does is allow a certain amount of illegal activity to go on in the community. A permit is about negotiating the rate of destruction, not stopping it.” The only way to prevent contamination, he said, was to never let the corporation into their community in the first place. Wanchisn liked that approach. She didn’t want a judicious permit; she wanted no injection well. In that case, Nicholson said, this “is not a pollution problem; it is a democracy problem.”
By then, Grant Township had a new lead supervisor, a passionately conservative former coal-company executive named Fred Carlson. “If there’s anyone who should be going along with this thing, it’s me,” Carlson says of the injection well. “But you have to think about the generations to come. And one of the biggest resources that this country has is clean fresh water.” He was eager to work with CELDF, which helped write a community bill of rights that made it illegal within the township to operate injection wells. The ordinance would also give residents the right to local self-government and grant “natural communities and ecosystems within Grant Township, including . . . rivers, streams, and aquifers . . . the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”
Footnote 1: Trump is defunding the federal fight against the opioid epidemic, including his proposal to undo the Affordable Care Act, which would force “an estimated 3 million Americans to lose some or all of their addiction treatment coverage.”
Footnote 2: Trump is weakening Obama EPA rules, including: car emissions standards, clean water standards (calling Flint, MI), and fracking guidelines.