July 20, 2009
On Thursday evening, my colleague, Jillian Fry and I went up to rural southern Pennsylvania with the intent of speaking to the school board of the South Eastern School District. We had been invited to speak by members of Peach Bottom Concerned Citizens to provide a summary of potential environmental hazards to schoolchildren and bus drivers, resulting from having school buses parked one-quarter of a mile from a proposed large-scale swine production facility in Peach Bottom. Specifically, there are concerns about exposures to bacteria (including antibiotic-resistant bacteria), toxins, allergens, viruses and other substances from riding or spending time around the school buses.
I saw my role as providing a summary of the science, separate from the politics. As it turned out, the politics were unavoidable. When we got to the meeting, I was not on the agenda. Maria Payans, a community member who had invited me, pulled out a stack of documents indicating she had gone through proper channels to have my talk put on the school board’s agenda. The school board took what turned out to be a long break to discuss the situation. When they came back, they read aloud the entire policy describing who could speak at meetings, but did not directly explain how they were interpreting it regarding whether I could speak.
When I later got up to speak as part of the public comment instead of the formal agenda, they said I had five minutes. It seemed for a moment like they were going to listen. But then they asked where I lived; I was dismissed on the grounds I cannot contribute comments because I am not a resident.
Many community members got up to speak, both expressing frustration with the situation, and also making their own statements about the public health concerns from parking school buses so near a proposed swine operation. A statement submitted by Amy Sapkota, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland (and a former CLF fellow), was also read aloud. In the end, a powerful and clear statement from community resident Mark Thomas defused some of the tensions, and several school board members did acknowledge the significance of the community concerns. They stated that Tuesday’s transportation committee meeting is a better place for this discussion. At least one school board member said that if the proposed facility is built, they will do what they can to protect the students’ health.
THIS STORY TO BE CONTINUED……
– Roni Neff