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An unnatural state

We must protect our environment by Denise White Parkinson Special to the Democrat-Gazette | October 15, 2016 at 3:12 a.m.

I've been thinking of what I could say to convince my fellow Arkansans that building an oil pipeline across every river between Fort Smith and Memphis would be disastrous. After all, the Plains/Diamond pipeline is being constructed by a company currently under criminal indictment because of oil spills (California's Refugio Oil Spill; Google it).

But I am faced with the reality that nobody listens to people like me, especially in my home state. Especially when I address subjects of which I have both a knowledge and personal history. Subjects such as environmentalism in the "Natural State."

The personal history began at age 5, when our family's houseboat on the Lower White River washed away. This was due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers generating a wall of water from Bull Shoals Dam upstream. We lost everything. The history continued at age 8 when, traveling the old highway from Grandma's house in the Delta to the bright lights of Little Rock, I experienced an epiphany.

As was the custom in 1971, I rode standing in the back seat, chin resting on my arms across the wide front seat bisecting the family car, an aqua four-door Dodge. It was dusk when we topped a hill to see the capital city spread out, glittering toward the distant Arkansas River. I was shocked to see something else: a thick orange layer of smog.

"At this rate, I'll be wearing a gas mask by the time I'm 12," I quipped. An environmentalist was born.

Thanks to the gains of the 1970s--the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act--things got better for the Natural State. For a while. But one day we drove by the state Capitol and the duck pond had disappeared, asphalted over for a parking lot. And who can forget the lake at the intersection of Rodney Parham and Reservoir Road? We loved seeing the island in bloom. When I was 14, in the backseat of the family car (now a Pontiac LeMans with seat belts) we drove past the formerly lovely lake. It was being filled in for a strip mall.

Someone had spray-painted across a billboard at the site: "YOU RAPED THE LAND!" Mom was flustered when asked what it meant; I had never seen that word.

Years later, as a young mother, I took my 3-year-old to fly a kite at Murray Park. An old man drove by on a city-owned tractor spraying a blueish chemical. I ran toward him, yelling for him to stop. It was windy and the chemical cloud was spreading everywhere--there were entire families in the park. But he didn't stop, and the combination of 2,4-D and Roundup sprayed that day on the banks of the Arkansas River sickened my 3-year-old and myself. It was the First Poisoning.

The next poisoning happened when I climbed a cracked earthen berm to photograph a company's open-air chemical waste pond. My nose bled for days. Then there was the poisoning from exposure to a dust cloud caused by faulty demolition of a National Historic Register landmark (I had ventured into a realm more disregarded than environmentalism: historic preservation).

My point in sharing this is to show that the typical Natural State environmentalist does not resemble Erin Brockovich. There are no big news stories, cameras, screenplays or award-winning films; only poisonings that are ignored. And the occasional suicide that goes unexplained.

I met with families from Mayflower after Exxon Mobil's Pegasus Pipeline ruptured and, they say, ruined their health. That was my first experience with a mass poisoning. Their stories would be helpful now in considering the many ways the Plains/Diamond pipeline can destroy lives and livelihoods.

In today's polarized atmosphere, where elected "leaders" are wont to cast a woman's words as the ravings of the biblical Jezebel, I realize my voice counts for less than nothing.

Decades of dismissive, often hostile responses to my inquiries about the Natural State's actual natural state continually demonstrate my insignificance. I get it! I am a writer who can write about any subject and see the article published: health, business, fine arts, restaurants, schools, entrepreneurship and home improvement. Just as long as I don't write a single word about the environment of my family's home state. It seems those stories always go straight to "File 13."

But times are changing. My children (and yours) are ever more aware and sophisticated. The failures of the dwindling generation of "Grups" are blatant. And the biggest failure of all will be shown to have been the readiness of the Natural State to accept an oil pipeline as its master. Because that is what the Plains/Diamond Oil pipeline is: master of Arkansas' waterways, aquifers and watersheds. We are all under hegemony of Big Oil now, waiting for the rupture that will eventually come. Because man-made pipelines always fail. The Downstream People, the River People, have been sold into bondage.

That's what I meant by "nobody listens to people like me"--I'm a proud River Rat of the disappearing Natural State of Arkansas. We are hard to find these days. But we still love the Natural State, and continue to hope for the best.

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Denise White Parkinson lives in Hot Springs National Park and is the author of Daughter of the White River.

Editorial on 10/15/2016

Print Headline: An unnatural state

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