Mike Johnson was a few months away from assuming elected office in late 2014 when he was confronted with an impassioned appeal by the man he would later pay tribute to in his first speech as House speaker: his father Patrick.
The elder Johnson, a former firefighter in the Louisiana city of Shreveport, had survived a near fatal industrial explosion when Mike was 12 years old, a defining event in both men’s lives. He had just joined a local community environmental group, working to fight against US government plans to burn – in the open air – over 15m pounds of toxic munitions. It had thrust Patrick and his future wife Janis Gabriel on to the frontlines of Louisiana environmental advocacy.
As authorities were on the verge of approving the “open burn”, which would have sent vast quantities of known carcinogens into the air, Patrick and Janis turned to the most influential person they knew.
Then an ambitious, rightwing constitutional lawyer, Mike Johnson would in a matter of weeks fill the vacancy for Louisiana’s eighth state legislative district – whose borders are just 20 miles from Camp Minden, a military base where the illegal munitions dump – the largest in US history – was located. A small amount of the munitions had spontaneously exploded two years before, causing a 4-mile blast radius.
The pair drove to Mike Johnson’s legal offices in the late morning, Gabriel recalled, and Patrick Johnson explained to his son the immediate environmental and health dangers the toxic dump posed, not only to residents in the immediate vicinity but to members of the Johnson family living in the region.
“His father and I went to him and said: ‘Mike you need to get involved in this, this is really important. Your family really lives at ground zero,’” Gabriel said in an interview with the Guardian. “We basically begged him to say something, to someone, somewhere.”
A terse back and forth followed, she said.
“He just wasn’t interested,” Gabriel said. “He had other things to do. He was never interested in environmental things.”
The couple left deeply disappointed.
“It just blew my mind that he wouldn’t give five minutes of his time to the effort,” she said. “He basically shut us down.” [Continue reading…]