One of the more disturbing things I’ve been seeing out of the new Congress, and in speeches at CPAC have been the assaults on environmental legislation. Newt Gingrich said he wants to “eliminate the EPA.“ Darrell Issa blames it for “killing job creation.” Yes, it’s apparent that they don’t like environmental rules. After all, if they weren’t in place, like in the “good old days,” we’d have lots of manufacturing and energy jobs! Of course, they really expect – or are paid to expect – that businesses will be careful without them! Which shows that they have no sense of history, or are willfully ignoring it. Those of us who live near former manufacturing centers have a different perspective on that.
In New York, the region along the Erie Canal running East to West from Albany to Buffalo was, up until the 70′s, a major manufacturing hub. General Electric, Allied Chemical, Eastman Kodak, US Steel, and a host of others had major facilities along it. Plenty of jobs, lots of business and tax revenue for the state. Good times, right? Except when they left, and with their leaving – either because they went out of business or just moved operations – they left behind a legacy that the people of the State are still dealing with.
Did you know that you shouldn’t eat fish from the Hudson River? Why? Well, most of them contain a high level of PCB’s. That’s the result of General Electric manufacturing transformers, and PCB’s were used in them. There’s a lot of it in the sediment now, and GE is cleaning it up. Responsible of them? Well, not quite. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do it – by the EPA. It took a number of years of court battles to get them to do it.
Just one instance? Let’s take a look further west. There’s a nice lake near Syracuse, called Lake Onondaga. It was very important to the development of the city, and various industries. Today, the entire lake is a Superfund site.
For over 125 years industrial and chemical operations disposed a variety of pollutants to the lake. At one time industry discharged approximately 20 pounds of mercury to the lake each day. As a result of this, surface water was contaminated with mercury, and sediments were contaminated with PCBs, pesticides, creosotes, heavy metals (including lead, cobalt and mercury), PHAs and volatile organic compounds such as chlorobenzene. Groundwater at many upland sites around the lake was also contaminated.
It’s the most polluted lake in the country. No one has been allowed to swim in it since 1940, or eat most fish from it since 1970. It still isn’t cleaned up, and won’t be “clean” for at least another generation. But heck, the chemical companies provided jobs!
Jumping further west, the most infamous example, Love Canal.
Love Canal, along with Times Beach, Missouri, are important in United States environmental history as the two sites that in large part led to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA is much more commonly referred to as “Superfund” because of the fund established by the act to help the clean-up of toxic pollution in residential locations such as Love Canal. It has been stated that Love Canal has “become the symbol for what happens when hazardous industrial products are not confined to the workplace but ‘hit people where they live’ in inestimable amounts.”
Those are just three of many places in this state where industries used to operate without concern, before the EPA existed. They created a lot of jobs and economic activity while they existed here. But they also left behind a legacy of pollution which the taxpayers of this state and the nation are paying to clean up. Yes, sometimes we can get the company to pay for it, but there are a lot of times where the company no longer exists, or we don’t know who left the mess.
That’s what history is, and why we need an EPA. Not just to clean up the messes – or force the businesses responsible to clean them up – that they left in the past, but to keep them from making further messes. Of course businesses don’t like it. They’d rather socialize the cost of cleaning up their messes, and not have to take the responsibility. If you think they’re going to be “environmentally responsible” now, I’d like to suggest looking at recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, or Tennessee. If that hasn’t convinced you, maybe you should come with me on a fishing trip. We’ll have a cook-out so you can eat the fish you catch, and you can go swimming afterward. You might even survive it.