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A special joy at Christmastime is to bring out the family’s old ornaments and enjoy each one again. We pick out ones that add a certain design to the tree.For the season, I choose three classics from my boxes full of air pollution affairs and hang them on this year’s evergreen. The glow fills the crannies amongst nobler glories.The plan sprang to life when a friend, call him Dave, stopped to chat from his truck as I walked along an idle street. Dave is a master of plopping quips on your plate. The small talk he cooks up always starts good fun.But we agreed it couldn’t top the curious stuff served up in real life. Three incidents show the timeless wonder of our nature.• • •A while back, gypsum was an item in the state’s news. How much comes out of the stack at the gypsum plant? Where does it go and what does it do with the air? Should anybody care?Gypsum – in formal terms, hydrous calcium sulfate – is a product found in nature. It adds quality in cement and wallboard, and murk when put in clean air. Our group favors less murk.At the height of the struggle over murk, the gypsum plant owners decided to raise the public’s knowledge of gypsum. An excellent idea.The lesson they chose was that all the elements in gypsum – calcium, sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen – naturally exist in the human body. The health such humors bring is awfully pretty.Of course, spin has no end. By the same illogic, the same stuff is pretty awful. The elements in gypsum also give us fuming sulfuric acid that causes cancer and dissolves bones.The same elements lurk in hydrogen sulfide, a poison so deadly a mere 1,000 parts per million kills thousands of people.What dazzle! What gingerbread! The gypsum “lesson” and its shadow are equally true. And each is a gem worth less than the other. The baubles are fine enough to keep.• • •Some ideas are so good they bob up in new forms and colors. The time was when coal-fired power plants each sent hundreds of tons a day of sulfur dioxide up the stack and into the air.At the height of the struggle, boosters of the big plants decided to raise the public’s understanding of sulfur. Sound familiar?The lesson they selected was that sulfur is good for the land. Farmers buy it and spread it to fertilize the soil and boost crop production. All gardeners know that’s as right as rain and on the mark.Our clean air group leapt at the opening. Our reply was swift and true: “The same can be said of horse manure, but we don’t like it rained from the skies.”The discussion soon changed course. The fancy trimming is another to store upstairs.• • •When air pollution first grew to be a common public issue, the ways of hearings were unfamiliar to the public and regulators. Hearings were bread and butter to industry’s lawyers.A consultant for industry, call him Dr. Fine, had spoken at length about why rules to guard clean air need be no more than minimal.A young man new to the hearing business followed him on the stand. He testified about the need for stricter rules.When he finished, industry attorneys descended to begin their withering cross-exam of the new witness.The attorney opened the attack with, “Did you hear the testimony of Dr. Fine?” The witness affirmed he had.The lawyer pressed on: “Do you respect the opinion of Dr. Fine?”The prey responded with the rare power of simplicity. In slow and earnest measure, he replied, “I respect everybody’s opinion.”Of one accord, the room burst into laughter. The reply was so genuine even the industry folks could not resist it.They, too, joined in a moment of camaraderie.Air went out of the attacker’s plan as from a loosed party balloon.It remains still a fine ornament for this year’s tree.Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
John Bartlit is with New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water