Republicans forget history again: Why we need the EPA

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.


Filed under Business, Politics

20 responses to “Republicans forget history again: Why we need the EPA

  1. overseasgranny

    Right on, Norbrook, except those companies are now polluting Africa and So. America almost with impunity because those people will take their jobs and the countries will take the taxes on them. Profit over life makes me sick to my stomach.

    • One of the things I remember about the GE cleanup was that GE under Jack Welch spent over a decade fighting the cleanup, and it was estimated that they spent more money to fight it than they would have spent if they just went ahead and cleaned it up when it was first pointed out. That’s in a case where we can identify the company responsible and the company still exists. There’s a lot of sites around where that isn’t possible, which means that any cleanup is on the taxpayer’s dime. One place I know of is an old railroad tie manufacturer, which went out of business in the 1930’s. The ground there was loaded with creosote, arsenic, and various tars.

      Way back in the ’70’s, I had point out a very simple fact to some of my elders (I was an environmental biology major): It costs less not to make the mess in the first place than it does to clean it up. That hasn’t changed, but then again, business people tend to think of “this quarter,” not “this decade.”

  2. Excellent post, Norbrook. Of course the EPA “costs jobs,” if by that you mean makes business pay the full cost of doing business. The environmental costs happen regardless. The question is who pays for them. Business would of course prefer that the rest of us pay the costs … so they can have bigger profits. But that’s not the “free market.” That’s welfare for business.

    • I’m late to this party, Norbrook, Crissie, but i would certainly agree, nothing is “free” about free markets except for the free lunches for the “corporate colonialists”. (my new meme, after writing my gandhi piece last night and realizing the colonialists are still the same people, still oppressing the same people, we just have different names for everything. help me work on it.

  3. Winning Progressive

    Great post, which I have posted at my Facebook page.
    Two things to add. First, because utility companies have illegally avoided the requirements of the Clean Air Act for the past 30 years, coal-fired power plant emissions cause 13,200 premature deaths every year. By contrast, in 2007 there were 12,600 people killed by guns in the U.S.

    Second, environmental regulations create jobs, because it takes lots of folks to install and operate the technologies needed to reduce pollution. For example, cleaning up a coal-fired power plant’s emissions requires the installation of controls that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which is money that is going to pay folks who are manufacturing and installating those controls.

    • As I said, a lot of it is due to the short-term thinking on the part of business executives. They’re thinking in terms of profits now, not the long-term costs. You really saw that with BP in the Gulf oil spill. They were doing everything to shave their costs, betting that maybe it’d work. That is going to cost them far and away more than if they’d just done it right in the first place.

      I’d also like to say that I’m not against a review of various regulations from time to time. If they don’t work, or there’s a better way of achieving the goal, fine. I’ve run into a few like that in my work, where it was one of those “bright ideas” that didn’t quite work the way it was supposed to, or had the opposite effect.

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  5. Thanks, Norbrook. “Republicans” and “Forgetting History” seems to be redundant lately.

    If you don’t mind, I am going to link to this piece from the BPI Campus Our Earth EcoNews Roundup that I do on Sunday nights. I want everyone who reads that to see your post.

  6. jjneitling

    Excellent post and on point. Another spectacular mess that needs to be publicized beyond the Pacific Northwest is the nuclear reservation at Hanford, WA, perhaps the most dangerously polluted site in the US. The cleanup is so far behind schedule and so expensive, in part due to the lack of knowledge about cleaning up nuclear waste. The delay causes even more problems because the tanks containing the nuclear cocktails continue to corrode and leak, endangering the entire Columbia River ecosystem.

    • I’m aware of Hanford’s problems, but that’s a problem created by the government, which makes it another subject for discussion. Mainly what I was trying to get across here is that when private businesses moan about environmental regulations and “killing jobs,” we need to remember why those regulations were developed in the first place. If I believed that businesses were going to take environmental concerns seriously, and act accordingly, I might be willing to listen to their concerns. Unfortunately, all I have to do is look at their recent behavior here in this country and abroad to realize that without someone to watch them closely, they won’t.

  7. Crystal

    Awesome post! I shared it on facebook.

  8. g

    And as more research is conducted, if it is not suprressed, we will see the correlation between cancer clusters and environmental toxicity.
    We are heading to Nova Scotia this summer, the photos are gorgeous. I am hoping better envivironmental reg and adherence to it exists for our northern friends.

    • I think it’s going to be harder to detect cancer clusters in the future, for a very simple reason. People move around too much. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific area or cause in that case. For example if I were to develop cancer, it would be difficult to determine whether it was because of my spending significant periods of time in various areas, my work environments, or other causes.

  9. Aquagranny911

    Excellent, Norbrook. I can add Rocky Flats in Colorado along with land tainted by mining here in AZ to your list. I’m forwarding your diary to my brother. He went to work for the EPA after he got back from Nam. He worked for that agency for several years before transferring to another agency.

    The Repubs don’t just “forget” history, they think they can re-write it to suit themselves. Expecting most businesses to police themselves is like hiring a fox to guard your hens.

  10. majii

    Thanks, Norbrook. I posted this on my FB wall.

  11. fleetadmiralj

    Heh, when I attended Syracuse, Lake Onondaga was kind of a running joke, with jokes usually along the lines of going swimming in the lake and then dissolving. I think most people there just accept that the lake is a giant piece of pollution, and will probably always be one.

    But one thing to add…not only does the EPA at least try to make businesses clean up the messes they make (or prevent them from making them in the first place), but without the EPA would we even have said prohibitions on swimming and eating fish from polluted likes like that?

    I mean, really, it’s your own problem if you die from eating a Mercury-soaked fish, right?

    • In fairness, the state Department of Health banned swimming there long before the EPA came into being, but it wasn’t until there started to be national rules about things like mercury, that fishing was banned. We might, just might have had some of the prohibitions, but the ability to keep it from happening or to get it cleaned up probably wouldn’t have been very good.

  12. Bobfr

    You are too kind.

    “Republicans forget history …”

    That would mean that they knew any history.

    They DO NOT.