Hazardous Homes in Herculaneum
CASE 7.1 Hazardous Homes in Herculaneum
twenty- five miles or so outside of st. louis, Missouri, lies little Herculaneum, a town of only 2,800 people. Looming over the town’s economy and the local environment is the Doe Run Company’s lead smelter, which dates back to 1892 and is the largest in the United States. For more than twenty years now, federal and state regulators have been after the company for polluting. In 1991, they required Doe Run to replace the contaminated topsoil in the gardens of about ninety houses in the vicinity of its smelter. In 2001, a study found that 24 percent of the children under six living within a mile of the company’s plant had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Doe Run now has agreed to clean up the site and has started installing new pollution- control devices to prevent further contamination. 100 In the meantime, however, environ-mental investigators have found lead levels as high as 300,000 parts per million on a road used by the plant’s trucks. Because of the health hazard that lead contamination poses, the state has put up signs warning residents of Herculaneum not to let children play outside, and the federal government is helping out by advising people to alter their diets to resist lead poisoning ( the gist: Don’t drink tea but eat more liver, eggs, whole- grain bread, and ice cream). Not so surprisingly, many residents of Herculaneum find this sort of assistance insulting. Instead, they want the federal govern-ment to step in, declare Herculaneum a Superfund cleanup site, and use federal funds to buy up the whole town. The Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA), however, believes that adding Herculaneum to the long list of places seeking a Superfund buyout will only delay a solution. The EPA is right not to exaggerate the speed with which Superfund projects move. When Congress created Superfund in 1980, sponsors of the legislation believed that the program could mop up the nation’s worst toxic dumps and other dan-gerously polluted sites within five years and do so for a rela-tively modest $ 1.6 billion, to be covered by sales taxes on chemical and petroleum- based products. Superfund was
authorized to recover its costs from the polluters themselves and to use this money to pay for future cleanup efforts. In this way, Superfund would become self- financing, with industry, not the taxpayers, picking up the tab. But the hopes of Superfund’s sponsors have yet to be realized. Congress has repeatedly had to pour money into the program to keep it going; there are continual complaints about inefficient, top-heavy administration, and to date only a portion of the coun-try’s most environmentally damaged sites have been restored. Moreover, Superfund has grown increasingly and stagger-ingly expensive. Its cleanup efforts have become mired in lawsuits, with the resulting litigation costs climbing to the stars. The problem, many observers believe, goes back to the initial Superfund legislation, which permits the EPA to penal-ize companies for dumping and polluting that was not illegal at the time it occurred. In addition, it makes individual pollut-ers liable for the entire cleanup costs of toxic sites that may have been used by many other firms. Corporations dislike these liability principles, and they find it less expensive to resist the EPA in court than to pay up. “ From the individual corporation’s perspective,” says David Morell, a toxic removal consultant and an expert on Superfund’s history, “ lawyers’ bills are still cheaper than paying for an entire cleanup.” And he adds: “ The longer you can stall— and convince yourself that you may never have to pay at all— the more the legal fees seem like a bargain.” As a result, a flood of lawsuits has slowed Superfund’s cleanup efforts to a crawl while the costs of those efforts have ballooned. “ The idea [ behind Superfund],” Morell says, “ was supposed to be ‘ shovels first and litigation later.’ Instead, it has become ‘ litigation first and shovels never.’” Many experts agree that Superfund has become a financial black hole. Legal fees, transaction costs, and administrative overhead associated with its cleanup projects are projected to exceed $ 200 billion. Others put the bill as high as $ 2,000 per person— paid in price increases on countless everyday chemical and petroleum- based products. And this sum doesn’t pay for the removal of hazardous wastes; it covers only litigation- related costs. According to critics, Congress has done little to solve the problems with Superfund, except to keep digging deeper into the national coffers to keep it going. However, Congress did exempt small businesses from Superfund liability if they contributed only a relatively small amount of hazardous waste to a targeted site, and it required the EPA to consider a company’s ability to pay when negotiating a settlement. For its part, the EPA contends that it is making good progress. It reports that 1,306 or close to three- quarters of the toxic waste sites designated as National Priorities List Sites have been cleaned up. Still, every day of delay increases the cleanup costs as waste from untreated sites seeps into the ground water and increases the size of the polluted area. “ These sites are not like fine wine,” John O’Connor, director of the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards, has explained. “ They get worse with age, and they get more difficult and costly to clean up.” Meanwhile, back in Herculaneum, Doe Run has— in accord with a plan drawn up with the state of Missouri— purchased more than 130 local homes. Some of these it has torn down; others stand vacant. The buyouts have removed many young children from harm’s way, but they have given many blocks of Herculaneum an eerie ghost- town quality. Doe Run continues to operate its lead smelter, but despite advice and prodding from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the plant still regularly exceeds legally permissible limits on lead emissions, and Herculaneum remains one of only two places in the nation that fail to meet federal air standards for lead. Although it may be too late to help poor Herculaneum, those standards are getting tougher. In response to a lawsuit by an environmental group and a couple from Herculaneum, in 2008 the EPA significantly tightened air- pollution standards for lead— the first update in over thirty years.
DIS CUSSION QUESTIONS
1. Identify the values and describe the attitudes that have contributed to pollution problems like those at Herculaneum. How would you feel if you lived in Herculaneum?
2. Do individuals inside the company, now or in the past, bear responsibility for causing the environmental damage at Herculaneum, or is it only the company as a whole? Is that responsibility shared by anyone outside the com-pany? Should families who moved to Herculaneum have known better?
3. Who should pay the costs of cleaning up Herculaneum— the company? the town? the state of Missouri? the federal government? What if the cost of restoring Herculaneum exceeds Doe Run’s resources? In general, whose respon-sibility is it to clean up the country’s hazardous pollution sites and waste dumps?
4. Was either the government or Doe Run morally required to buy the most contaminated homes? Should anything else be done for those families? What about the rest of the town— should Superfund purchase all of it?
5. Is it fair for Superfund to fine polluters for dumping or polluting that was legal at the time it occurred? Is it fair that each individual polluter have full liability for cleaning up environmental damage to which others also may have contributed? How might Superfund be made to work better?
6. With regard to pollution in general and the disposal of toxic wastes in particular, what are the obligations of indi-vidual manufacturers and of society as a whole to future generations?
PLACE THIS ORDER OR A SIMILAR ORDER WITH US TODAY AND GET AN AMAZING DISCOUNT 🙂