Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Way of the World

The chemical plant sits smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood. So close it’s as if my neighbors across the street are the plant. Its purpose is to take toxic chemicals and neutralize them and then pump the neutralized byproduct into the sewage system. It doesn’t function willy-nilly, the Environmental Protection Agency keeps a stern eye on the plant and there are reams of reports about its operations. But if I were living in that neighborhood I’m not sure I could sleep at night.

Large tanker trucks run all day and night through the neighborhood, through regular everyday neighborhood streets. They bring chemicals from all over. I even read a report about how the Indiana Department of Homeland Security monitored chemicals from Indiana that were delivered to the plant. A large brouhaha broke out a couple years ago when it was learned that the plant was securing a contract with the Department of the Army to neutralize VX. Citizen activists rallied the community and defeated the plan.

I wondered why people moved into the neighborhood next to the plant and then I learned that the plant had moved in on them a decade or so ago. They could of course move out if they had the money but these people are poor white Appalachia types. It’s the kind of neighborhood where the sheriff has his hands full just trying to keep up with the meth labs and any house that is unoccupied for any length of time finds its aluminum siding being brazenly torn off to be sold at recycle.

It’s not even really the ground zero of the plant that is worrisome. It’s the tanker trucks running up and down the highway that borders the town. Accidents do happen, as we’ve seen elsewhere and people may need to evacuate or at the least receive instruction to close all doors and windows and stay inside.

The town does have a government channel, but a couple years ago during the upgrade of the cable system they somehow lost the ability to post bulletin board messages from the town offices. Now they have to fax over messages to the folks at the headend and rely on them to post them. Seems the cable staff make lots of spelling errors and run old, outdated messages even after they’ve been asked to remove them.

There is no local newspaper, no town radio station and the only time they get covered by broadcast stations is when something bad happens.

They do have a coordinated emergency plan and the town takes great pride in its fire department. But the question remains, if something happens, say a chlorine spill, how will they get the word out to the residents? Sure the broadcast stations would be eager to cover the story, but the truth is, day or night, most people aren’t watching broadcast. Most people are spread out over those sixty to one hundred channels watching American Idol or NASCAR or Leave it to Beaver re-runs.

It is my plan to negotiate an Emergency Alert System with the cable operator. Simply, should something happen, the Fire Chief is empowered to declare an emergency and have the cable operator run a crawl on all the channels instructing people to tune in to the government channel for information. To make this work, we’d need at least one camera at the town offices so they could go live. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, given that in a town of less than 4,000 people the cable operator takes out about a million dollars a year in revenue. That amount will only grow as more people come online, pick up broadband and switch their phone service.

Of course now, I am unsure any of that is going to happen with national franchising. Sure the town might get five percent, which is an improvement over what they have now and they might get that one percent PEG fee, but the cable operator is not going to provide the town with a way to communicate during a critical emergency out of the goodness of his or her heart. And federal law won’t make them do it. I was pretty confident we could do some horse trading and I could make it happen.

Nor will this town enjoy the benefits of competition and lower cable bills. It’s mostly a depressed area with its share of poor blacks who live in a mirror image neighborhood on the other side of town. These are not the “high value” customers we’ve heard so much about.

I was asked recently how much of my business will go away with national franchising, at present it’s only fifteen percent, I’ve been fortunate to build a consulting business with a great deal of diversification. National franchising doesn’t keep me up at night because I’m worried about my pocket book; I’ve got plenty of money.

What does bother me is my obsession with the towns and people I have worked with. One had eight percent unemployment and their main industry, auto parts manufacturing, was evaporating before their eyes. It was imperative that they build a technology infrastructure in order to attract new business and re-train factory workers to move into a new economy. They also had a CSX rail line that ran straight through the middle of town, ferrying all manner of payload including chemicals. One had a Public access channel in name only that was being held hostage by the cable operator. The thought was to combine Public access with Government access, obtain a facility and adequate equipment. That one percent PEG fee might cover the needs of Government access but it certainly won’t be sufficient for Public access, and there’s also an Educational access channel over at the high school that will need to share that fund.

So I sit and wait and watch the news and think about poor people and chemical plants and mostly I feel completely disgusted. The people I have broken bread with, the people in the neighborhoods where I have driven and walked, the people who are desparate to tell their stories and move their communities past inertia, are being completely ignored. But I suppose that's just the way of the world and I've been told there's nothing any of us can do about it.

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