Monday, September 17, 2007

Carcinogens, commutations and class: Musings from the past week

(Published 7/7/07)

Let’s look at three recent events this week.

• The Alabama Environmental Management Commission rejected a petition by 18 environmental and citizens groups that would have brought Alabama’s water quality standards in line with most other states, including most of our neighbors.

Petitioners said the higher standards would result in a 90 percent reduction in the amount of carcinogens that industry dumps into state waters. Alabamians eat more locally caught fish than people in neighboring states, and Alabamians also have a higher incidence of cancer, they say.

Industry heavyweights opposed the changes, citing concerns about the affordability of compliance under the proposed standards. Commissioners ultimately agreed to study the issue over the coming months and meet again on Oct. 19.

Here’s my question: What is the state spending on medical care for its citizens stricken with cancer? I’m no doctor, and I don’t know what exactly would constitute a "clear link" between currently acceptable pollution standards and cancer rates. But it would seem to me that a reduction in, for example, the amount of arsenic (yes, arsenic) dumped at some plants - from 58 pounds per day under current standards to fewer than six pounds per day, as proposed - could conceivably make a dent in our state’s cancer rate.

I agree that Alabama needs industry. But can’t we find a more appropriate balance between the desirable aspects of industry and its deleterious byproducts?

The bottom line is that someone will pay for the pollution. Will it be the state and its taxpayers, or the industry that produces it? We’ll find out on Oct. 19.

• President Bush commuted Scooter Libby’s prison term: Talk about fireworks in the middle of an otherwise bland off-week in Washington. Wow!

Here’s what I don’t get: If the president believed that Libby was innocent of the charges against him (perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators), then why not pardon him completely? Bush did leave the door open for a complete pardon if Libby pursues one, but if he believes Libby to be innocent, why wait?

On the other hand, if Bush doesn’t believe Libby to be innocent, then why intervene at all?

Some GOP bloggers have speculated that Bush tried to walk a fine line between completely exonerating Libby and leaving him to the mercy of the prison system. Bush left in place the fine and probation periods, they say; that is punishment enough.

But rather than coming down on one side or the other, Bush straddled the fence: he’s claiming to respect the decision of the court on one hand while dismissing its lawfully considered sentence on the other. It doesn’t make sense, legally or politically.

• NBA player Derek Fisher asked for and received a release from his contract with the Utah Jazz. He walked away from $21 million to be with his wife and four children as they look for the best treatment for Fisher’s 11-month-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare and potentially fatal cancer of the eye.

Obviously, Fisher has his priorities in line, and his family has the prayers and best wishes of so many as they pursue healing for their little girl. But perhaps the real hero in this story is Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.

Fisher made it clear that he doesn’t intend to retire, so Miller’s agreement to release him means that Fisher, a talented guard and at 30, a veteran of three NBA championships in Los Angeles, could potentially end up standing in the way of a Jazz title. Miller could have attached any number of provisions, non-compete clauses and otherwise, to the release. But he didn’t.

In a world where many professional athletes and teams are now noted as much for their antics off the field and out of season as they are for their play, and in a time when teammates punch each other and coaches crawl combat-style across the field like a two-year-old to protest an umpire’s call, it’s good to know that there is still some sanity and humanity in professional sports.

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