From a skybox, on a clear day you can see forever

Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, would have perfectly understood the fetish of building sports stadiums in America.

Consider Miami, the poorest big city in America, where politicians recently promised a professional baseball team 130 million tourist-tax dollars for a new stadium. A few years ago, elected officials in Miami answered the question of what to do with a new basketball arena that couldn’t attract enough revenue or people by building another one a few blocks away, so taxpayers and tourists are paying for two arenas.

That’s on top of a $60 million raceway in nearby Homestead: a decade’s worth of stadiums that will total more than $500 million—if the baseball stadium is built. Who benefits?

Insiders like billionaire Wayne Huizenga, who persuaded next-door Broward County to build a professional hockey rink at the edge of the Everglades, who came in as a partner to “save” the Homestead Motor Sports Complex, who owns the Miami Dolphins and operates Pro Player Stadium, recently smiling for TV cameras at the football training camp in the company of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who may or may not have flown in on the corporate jet, looking for all the world as if surrounded by gladiators.

Civic boosters claim a tangible benefit of sports stadiums in unifying the community, and Caesar’s enablers did, too, using entertainments and public spectacle to achieve the desired blurring of focus-enabling passive audiences to feel the vicarious thrill of wealth and power as though they could just reach out and touch the illusion.

But in Miami, the people who matter—the middle class—have been drifting away. Not so lucky were some citizens in another part of the state, Escambia County in the Panhandle, where a recent grand jury report details how workers of Agrico, a bankrupt fertilizer manufacturer, were once paid $50 a month for health care and “provided no protection from chemicals, so (they) made their own masks and gloves . . . (wrapping) their feet and hands to prevent chemical burns and sores on their faces, arms, and legs.”

That’s an Escambia County grand jury report on groundwater contamination that notes “. . . local, state, and federal government authorities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Escambia County Utilities Authority (ECUA) failed, individually or collectively, to: monitor ground water sufficiently; notify customers and the general public of water-quality violations at multiple wells in southern Escambia County; restore groundwater resources at Superfund sites; and prevent future groundwater contamination.”

Groundwater contamination: that’s drinking water. One way to get a handle on the perverse priorities of government and public officials is to compare the vital statistics: The Earth’s surface and composition of the human body is 70 percent water and the percentage that either depends on the funding of professional sports venues is zero.

”DEP and ECUA records show ECUA staff knew for several years that drinking water from wells in the ECUA system was contaminated with radium and other harmful substances, but the staff did not disclose the contamination, as required, to their customers, the ECUA Board or the public. The ECUA staff did not treat the contaminated water or close wells, but chose to wait, and presumably hope, for better test results or for EPA to lower water-quality standards.”

Early in the administration of the Bush White House, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote to the president, asking for help in lowering protections afforded people under the Safe Drinking Water Act. At the best, the massive public outcry has helped to delay changes that the polluter-friendly Bush White House is sympathetic to.

But delay is to underground pollution as wind is to secondhand cigarette smoke.

The Escambia grand jury recommends that the state of Florida “criminalize the willful failure of public-water suppliers to report or to notify the public or customers of violations of primary drinking-water quality standards” and to “criminalize dereliction of duty by public officers.”

Yes. Imagine elected officials whose votes have shifted the costs of pollution to people, facing justice from those who have suffered the costs of pollution. But after their actions—for example, failing to protect infants and mothers from mercury pollution, failing to re-authorize EPA Superfund or systematically gutting environmental programs and agencies from within—you will have to find them first.

Some of your most powerful elected officials have figured out where to hide on any given Sunday: in the skyboxes of sports stadiums, unobstructed by common people or their roar depending on who is winning or losing.

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