Tales of Our TimesBy JOHN BARTLITNew Mexico Citizensfor Clean Air & WaterAny Big, New Works Nearby Looms LargeList every environmental fear that people have. Now imagine a miracle occurs, so the order of concerns listed is exactly accurate. No doubt the worry that tops the list is having a big plant built within a straight shot of our own house. Being a boon for the environment makes no difference.The plant will change the surroundings, even if the air and water stay exactly as they were, which is not likely. The bald truth of a big new plant is easy to see, and everyone sees it.From there the story grows muddled. Threads of complexity tangle with each other. Water use can add worries. Troubling sounds and smells are hard to figure out and easy to wonder about. Plants may run at night. Traffic is knotty.There are air emissions to assess. The assessments specified by federal rules say the emissions, with required controls, are within legal limits. Thus, laws require the proper air quality bureau to grant permits to build and operate the plant. Still … there are air emissions, beginning with dust, many tens of tons a year. Everyone would be happier if there weren’t any. One can never be sure about all aspects of emissions, their effects, how they interact with other emissions, or how they affect varied people.Our knowledge of what is safe fills volumes. The law requires that margins of safety be added in. Yet undoubted safety is never possible. Double the margins of safety, and certainty is still beyond our reach. The mixtures of pollutants are endless.The variations in people complicate matters. Some suffer ill effects from walking down the detergent aisle at the grocery store. These people are simply people. Their physical systems merely work in that way differently from most. Still, we need detergent aisles.Studies, judgments, and emission limits are forever a work-in-progress, thus are forever partly unfinished. New understanding keeps coming, though never as fast as questions come. Oddly enough, the probing course of science can seem like an evil intent. The channels that run in institutions make the news. Motives are suspect. The thread ends of suspicion “confirm” that a finely woven tapestry of conspiracy has spread across the land.Once motives are the issue, they suck the air out of the hard details. Cynicism burns up more time and energy than emissions and safety combined. Suspicious plots get more play in the news than the environment itself.This story line occurs in so many places that it has its own name. We know it as “Not-In-My-Backyard,” or “NIMBY” for short. On one hand, NIMBY can be seen as the most selfish and antisocial of behaviors. On the other hand, it can be seen as the most normal and sincere of behaviors. Since we are all human, it is both at once.The pursuit of a wholesome environment is central to NIMBY conflicts. Yet, how much “greenness” a large new project has, or supplies does not alter NIMBY feelings. A new plant for turning biowastes into biofuel will spark the same local concerns as an oil-handling facility of equal size. Perhaps more. The response is not a sign of duplicity, but natural realities.All plants have permitted effects we would rather not have. Emissions or no, a large plant spoils the old neighborhood. Seen from our home, a “green” plant is seldom green. As a rule, “green” plants have the old ash gray on charcoal look of a factory.I describe a large public problem that grows. I observe its roots and how it evolves. You, the jury, will decide how the same scene looks to you.Seeing the nature of a problem does not solve the problem nor change viewpoints. Yet, I believe delving into details is better than hiding them underneath the feelings called NIMBY.