Are you Comfortable?: When Environmental Issues Become Human Rights Ones

04.25.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Some people may be skeptical and ask “When do environmental issues become more than just a tree-hugger’s big problem?” As consumers who completely rely upon the resources that our environment has to offer us, environmental issues should be everyone’s big problem.

However, just because we all should be concerned does not mean that everyone actually is concerned about the environment. Usually, it is the conscientious individuals or those who have been directly affected by environmental issues that are the spokes people towards sustainable and green practices within their own households and communities. As a participant in the West Virginia H.O.P.E. program I was able to see firsthand the sort of issues that occurred when environmental issues became a much bigger problem for communities.

West Virginia is a big energy producer especially when it comes to coal which has become a big part of their culture, economically and symbolically. But like any typical boom and bust economy business is only good when the money-making companies are there. The same ones that create many of the environmental issues that affect the local community. As a result people within these communities have conflicting emotions about their need for jobs and the issues that these companies create.

One of the new energy sources in West Virginia is natural gas, which is extracted from the earth using a method called hydraulic fracturing, nicknamed fracking. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal does however, one disastrous side effect that fracking can cause is contaminated ground water.  To extract and release the natural gas, companies pump a “secret recipe” of chemicals, water, and sand deep into the earth to break shale formations and to keep them open. Not all of what they pump into the earth comes back up and the “produced water” that does, is unsalvageably toxic and useless. Nevertheless the biggest problem is that many of these chemicals are known carcinogens. And these carcinogens are being pumped into local family’s houses through contaminated water sources; to their sinks, bathtubs, and washing machines. Along with these carcinogens are things like methane which has resulted in some pretty spectacular displays of individuals lighting their drinking water on fire.

And this is the point when environmental issues become so much more than just an environmentalist’s problem. When individuals are being denied access to clean water in their own homes due to the irresponsibility of money hungry corporations it takes a step past environmental problems into the realm of human rights issues. As citizens of the United States this is an issue that is generally thought to be a third-world problem only. But as I’ve seen for myself, access to clean water is still an issue here in the U.S. So the real question is, are you comfortable knowing that people in our own country don’t have access to clean water and as a consumer, you are part of the problem? The answer may be you shouldn’t be and maybe more corporations should be held accountable for the issues that they create. So the next time you see an environmental issue pop up in the news, think of what other effects such problems can have on a community; it may not be just environmental.


Acknowledgements go to the 2013 West Virginia H.O.P.E. trip (  in particular to the student and teacher trip leaders) for an enlightening experience and many insightfully led group discussions

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