Friday, June 3, 2016

On being opportunistic, or “Being against the law, except when you need it.” (6/3/2016)

A discussion on one of the LinkedIn groups I am a member of sucked me into a rabbit hole that I call today's blog post (and yes I will share it with you a little later in this post).  It stirred something in me that I also about about in the classes that I teach. 

So often you hear people complain about (environmental) laws and regulations: that they are too restrictive; that these prevent the growth of businesses that they are regulating; that some laws tell people what they can or cannot do on their own land; and even make private property undevelopable.  Then there are times people hide behind the laws and regulations and don’t want to do anything extra or different or don't want to do more than the law requires them to do.  Doing more costs money; even when doing more makes more sense, or when it is better for the environment, or when it is more sustainable (read profitable) in the long run.  This is not only true in my job right now; I even see this is the current political environment.

Let me explain.  One of the classes I teach is a class on the use of plants in erosion and sediment control and in stormwater management.  I spoke about it in previous blog posts <here> and just a small mention <here>.  In this course I talk about non-native plants and the care we need to take that they do not become invasive.  In fact, as I also mention in class, Virginia’s Natural Heritage Group currently identifies 90 invasive plant species that threaten the natural areas in Virginia.  You can find the list by clicking <here>.

Galax, (Galax rodundifolia) a native species, all in bloom in the mountains right now
Now here comes the rub: we work from guidebooks that were written in 1992 and 1999.  They are somewhat out-of-date, in particular when it come to the understanding of what foreign plants eventually become invasive; it takes time to find that out.

Take the plant in the picture below, sericea lespedeza is a legume introduced from the far east.  It grows fast and forms these dense mats.  It was thought to be great in stabilizing construction sites and controlling erosion and sediments.  It was used in revegetation throughout the U.S. However, we found out that this plant is too aggressive and competitive; and does not allow other plants to become established.  Moreover, it is allelopathic, meaning that it gives of a chemical that prevents the germination and growth of other plant species.  I describe it as chemical warfare between plants (something I studied for my PhD).  This is why some states have wanted posters for this plant.  It is still listed in our handbook that was published in 1992 and since it is there, some builders are still insisting that they can use it on their property, even though they harm themselves and everybody around them in the short and long run.

Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cunuata) a noxious weed that is still being recommended by the handbooks.
A Kansas State poster.

All the time I get people complaining either that the laws and regulations that these guidebooks are based on are too restrictive.  People are always trying to circumvent the law and the regulations; who are we, telling them what they can and cannot do on their property!  In other cases, people who design plans will copy whole pages out of our out-dated books and slap them on plans.  It is the easy way out, it does not require any thinking time and if it is in the book it must be OK, or so they think.  It is a great thing to hide behind even if it calls for the planting of invasive plant species like sericea lespedeza.  However, the minute we ask them to update their plant species list, they refuse, because that is going above and beyond what the guide books requires them to do, and they hide behind the law they so revile in almost all other cases.  Trying to get away with it and if you can't getting away with the minimum, opportunistic, but using the law in their advantage when they need it.  Not everybody does it of course but even one is too many.

This all came up in me during a discussion on LinkedIn on the potential environmental consequences of the great American wall that Donald Trump wants to build.  It is amazing to think about what would happen to things such as water flow, airflow to the migration of insects and animals or even seeds; maybe even people, just to name a few.  The discussion centered about all the permitting that would be required.  All federal projects need to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA and the question was if a President Trump would abide by this law.

This brought me back to just after 9/11.  I was working on Andrews Air Force Base as an environmental consultant.  Andrews AFB did not have a perimeter road at that time.  A perimeter road is a road at the inside of the entire fence that could be patrolled by the military police to keep intruders of the base.  This is very important, especially for a place like Andrews AFB, since it is the home of Air Force 1, the President’s plane.  So there I was, doing my job just after 9/11, when I noticed that they were frantically building a perimeter fence around Andrews AFB.  I was told that there was no permit for any of the work and they were tearing through wetlands and forests, which all needed a permit, and yes, go through the NEPA process (write an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement).  Being the (somewhat) naïve, but hungry consultant, I spoke with my contacts in the environmental office and offered my assistance and told them I could help them and get them an after the fact permit, probably very quickly.  He told me he would take it under advisement, and within an hour military police escorted my off Andrews AFB and I was told never to set foot on base again.  I eventually lost my job for the company that I was working for at the time, because of this incident.

Air Force 1.  (I stole this picture from the White House website)
 I guess this being above the law, whoever it is, bothers me.  Yes, Andrews AFB needed that perimeter road, and it was foolish that they never had one in the first place!  But more than that, I am so tired of people (companies) trying to break the law, doing the bare minimum required by regulations, and trying whatever they can to get away with, just for short-term profit, or gain for themselves or their stockholders, while not considering the environment, sustainability or society as a whole.  No, profit was not a motive at Andrew's AFB, safety was; but me pointing out that laws were being ignored and that the military was not above the law did not go over well, and made me loose my job.

This discussion on the great American wall brought it all back to the surface.  Again, think about it, what would president Trump do?  From an environmental standpoint and the way he takes things out on everybody that opposes or just questions him?  A scary thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment