Franciscan Earth Corps Program Director, Rhett Engelking offers comments at EPA hearing

The following testimony was offered at the Environmental Protection Agency hearing on February 2, 2014 by Rhett Engelking, Program Director of the Franciscan Earth Corps.

Peace and All Good, My name is Rhett Engelking and I work for the Franciscan Action Network. We are an advocacy group whose constituents are clergy and lay people who have patterned their life after that of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. I, myself, am a professed member of the National Fraternity of Secular Franciscan in the United States of America and a member of the largest Roman Catholic religious order in the world.  We Catholics know St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology, a designation that was granted him by Blessed John Paul II nearly 35 years ago.


Those in popular Culture may have come to know Francis of Assisi as the namesake of the current Pope Francis.  According to a recent CNN poll, the Holy Father holds an 88% approval rating among American Catholics and A 75% rating among American Non Catholics. The Pope has attained this level of popularity largely by speaking truthfully about our “throw away culture” which often leads to sacrificing men and women to the idols of profit and consumption.” In his most recent papal exhortation he wrote:

“[A] globalization of indifference has developed …. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf … has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

It may not be readily apparent what the connection between idolatry and an impersonal economy has to our discussion of emissions standards, but if you will bear with me I would like to elaborate. Prior to my work with the Franciscan Action Network, I was directly involved in medical care for over 8 years. In the business world, all costs that affect people who did not choose to incur those costs are called externalities.  Through my experiences as a researcher in Emergency medicine and as a therapist at a prominent psychiatric hospital, I witnessed firsthand these so called externalities in the personal lives of the patients that I served. The mantra of the externality is “someone else will take care of this problem.” This indifference to the impact of externalities points precisely to the human crisis that the Pope refers to: the denial of the primacy of the human person.

I began my work at the psychiatric hospital dealing with children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Developmental Disorders, and diagnoses along the spectrum of Autism.  These are children that have been born with profound biological disadvantages in their learning capabilities and their ability to behave appropriately in a variety of social settings.  These disadvantages also translate into innumerable costs for the families raising these children and the instances of diagnoses are on the rise.

The children I dealt with were primarily urban black youth and most came from families who could only afford Title 19 funded health care.  It should be no surprise that urban families are often the most proximal to the effects of coal power plant emissions, but it may surprise you to know that an increasing body of scientific evidence has tied an early exposure to environmental toxins to a troubling rise in the number of diagnoses of ADHD, Autism, and Childhood Schizophrenia. These children have been shown to have abnormally high levels of heavy metals such as lead and mercury in their blood streams. These metals never leave and it is increasingly more frequent that they enter their bodies prior to the child’s birth. I have had the unfortunate experience of working first hand with a child with juvenile schizophrenia who had more lead in his circulatory system than you would find in that of a middle aged coal miner with black lung.

Even in the mildest of circumstances these children will struggle through life with a learning disability while in more troubling cases, the high degree of environmental pollutants will lead to spontaneous abortion of a growing fetus. I must emphasize that these are purely externalities and none of these affected individuals have consented to these costs. You see, in the areas surrounding a coal fired plant a dome of carbon emissions is created which traps these toxins and creates an inescapable dome of toxic air. It seems to be no coincidence that over 2/3 of the population surrounding these plants are African American families of low socioeconomic status, who also have shown increasing incidence of the psychiatric diagnoses I listed previously.  A recent report on US power plant emissions has documented  7,000 asthma related emergency room visits, 18,000 chronic bronchitis, and 30,000 premature deaths. Emergency room visits such as these are directly related to the externalities of carbon emissions and have the added external impact of increasing the already out of control health care costs of other Americans. All of this in the name of increased energy consumption.

I may be in the minority opinion, but I do not directly blame the power plants for these problems. On the one hand, we live in a culture that is addicted to an unsustainable lifestyle. I have some experience dealing with the mind of an addict and I can say firsthand that the same behavior displayed by residents of my former hospital can be seen every day in the electronic habits of everyday Americans. On the other hand, Coal fired power plants are increasingly publicly traded corporations that have been structured, through a series of legal decisions, to have a peculiar and disturbing characteristic. I recognize that they are required, by law, to place the financial interests of their owners above competing interests. Said another way, as corporations they are legally bound to put their bottom line ahead of everything else, even the common good. Indeed this indifference to the primacy of the human person is often legally mandated. Electric power is needed and they must provide it, however possible. Such mandates make it, in most cases impractical and in some cases, impossible for these companies to regulate themselves.

The concerned citizens that I represent recognize as I do that governmental regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency are our best hope of curbing the immediate and long term damage of these carbon emissions. The EPA is our government’s moral conscience on most aspects of the environment and that is why I implore you to remember the primacy of the human person and consider the wider impact to the Common Good of any deregulation of our current emission standards.  I would further implore that when considering an increase in existing standards that you continue to keep in mind the impact that seemingly harmless emissions have on the struggle of poor and everyday Americans for upward mobility.

Published in: on March 3, 2014 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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