Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cleanup: Paying it Backward

Local journalist Sara Cline recently reported on a local environmental case that illustrates an important and little-understood aspect of national environmental policy. The town of West Bridgewater has been asked -- politely but through legal counsel -- to pay $42,000 toward the clean-up of a contaminated property 35 miles to its west, in another state.



More details about the site are available (for now at least) on the Environmental Protection Agency's Peterson/Puritan page. The 500-acre (0.8 square mile) site, located along the historic Blackstone River, contains multiple sources of serious groundwater pollution. As detailed in the site background portion of the page, severe pollution of the sensitive riparian environment resulted from several kinds of manufacturing, combined with at least one major spill, a fire, and the operation of a landfill.
Learn much more about this location from the interactive
community cleanup map.
As is often the case on designated Superfund (or National Priority List) sites, is the landfill that connects the relatively far-away town to the site. The Superfund law that President Carter signed in 1980 is better known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

The word "liability" is key. Because school curricula focus much more on distant history (which is important) than recent history (which is equally important) and not at all on geography, it is possible to find many young people who do not know of Love Canal, and the power of that name during the 1970s. It inspired Congress to act boldly (as difficult as that is to imagine in 2018), and to admit that HUGE amounts of money would be needed to clean contaminated sites and compensate innocent victims of pollution from earlier decades or centuries.

The money was to come from three sources: general revenue, special taxes on petroleum and chemicals (which the industry actually favored), and fees paid by parties found to be responsible for contamination. This third part -- liability -- is the smallest portion and the most difficult to identify. MOST responsible parties are unknown, defunct, or both. Still, it was considered important to build some accountability into the program where it could be quantified.

As Cline's reporting indicates, the costs assigned to Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) are low relative to the entire cleanup, for several reasons. The use of a low penalty to avoid costly litigation is one, and the inherent difficulty of calculating relative responsibility is perhaps even more important. In the West Bridgewater case, the shear scope of the contaminated site -- which has been undergoing cleanup for well over 30 years -- makes it difficult to collect much from any one party. West Bridgewater is being asked to pay 1/1,000th of the total cleanup cost.

As mentioned above, Love Canal is the antecedent of the entire Superfund program. My Love Canal Recap article describes the original story and its aftermath.

Lagniappe

From 1989 to 1990, I worked for Dames & Moore, which was then a major environmental consulting firm. It was there that I learned the practical importance of CERCLA. Because a company -- or even a town -- can be found liable for long-ago and far-away contamination, it behooves them to search for possible sources of such liability. This often involves painstaking inspections of old maps and directories, combined with current databases. This is ideal work for geographers!


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