When Love Canal broke into the headlines in 1978, American manufacturers must have suffered nightmare visions of themselves noosed up to lamp posts by vigilante mobs. Better than anyone else they knew what poisons they had been dumping into holes in the ground (or in near-by creeks) for the past twenty years. And they knew they couldn't stop doing it anytime soon.
The present generation of manufacturing plants is based upon inefficient technologies that produce enormous quantities of waste, and not much can be done about that until America rebuilds its factories, which it does once every 50 years or so. Until a new industrial apparatus can be constructed, based on closed-loop technology with zero discharge as its design goal, the old plants will continue spewing industrial poisons into the environment.
Meanwhile, manufacturers in 1978 faced this serious problem: With thousands of dumps being discovered each year, and with manufacturing wastes being created at an accelerating pace (the rate of waste production increases at a steady 6% per year, which means that total waste production is doubling every 12 years), how could industry survive decades of confrontation with a suddenly-awakened, and outraged, public? How could industry finesse all the poisoning that had gone on, and at the same time keep pumping out new poisons at an accelerating pace? The public might be gullible, but were they really that gullible?
Happily for the industry, Congress came to the rescue almost immediately by creating the Superfund law and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Superfund was to find "solutions" to old dumps, and RCRA was to assure the orderly creation of new ones.
Starting in 1980, Superfund created a brand new "site remediation" industry, which now spends roughly $2 billion per year and employs thousands of engineers and lawyers who spend their lives conducting technical debates that go on for years (literally). The debates are, for the most part, conducted behind closed doors; the public is excluded; periodically, a public relations flak for the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) (or for the state regulatory agency) emerges and holds a press conference to assure the public that "cleanup" is proceeding apace and all is well in the republic. "Cleanup" is never defined; the Superfund program still has no official answer to the question, "How clean is clean?" Meanwhile, across town a different group of EPA scientists (or state agency scientists) are closeted behind polished doors with a small cadre of industrial lawyers, putting the finishing touches on a new RCRA permit which allows the creation of yet another "state of the art" landfill or deepwell-injection hole. Or, as an alternative, the regulatory officials are signing off on a new scheme to dump chemical wastes into the local sewers (which is perfectly legal and entirely exempt from RCRA control), or is sanctioning the shipment of hazardous wastes to a cement kiln or to some other RCRA-exempt incinerator which was never intended for destruction of hazardous wastes and, as you would expect, doesn't do a very good job of it.
Thanks to Superfund and RCRA, America's manufacturers can now sleep peacefully, secure in the knowledge that very few of them will ever be brought to justice for their past crimes, and they can continue dumping into pits, ponds, lagoons, landfills, or deep holes in the ground because the RCRA process makes it all perfectly legal. Superfund and RCRA have done some good by raising awareness of these problems, but they have also built a wall of government sponge around the guilty parties, insulating them from direct confrontation with the affected publics. At the few public meetings that ARE held, industrial decision-makers are not required to appear; it's the regulatory officials who face the public, take the heat on behalf of industry and make all the official explanations about why it's got to be this way. (After a few years of loyal service as a lightning rod for public outrage, those regulatory officials will be invited to pass through the revolving door where they will be rewarded with cushy, safe jobs inside the industries they have "regulated" so faithfully, and a new generation of youngsters will be hired by government to face the angry public, to explain the necessity of permitting of new sources of poisoning, and to finesse the nearly-universal failure to clean up old dumps in a timely fashion).
Is this a paranoid nightmare that we have manufactured? Not at all. It is the way the nation's hazardous waste system actually works today. Since 1980, with more than $7 billion spent, fewer than 50 Superfund sites have actually be cleaned up. And in the 12 years since Love Canal was discovered, American industry has pumped out a total amount of toxic waste equal to all of the toxic waste created prior to Love Canal (during the period from 1880 to 1978). The vast majority of wastes created since Love Canal has been placed (perfectly legally) in landfills, or deep-well injected, or dumped down a sewer (another perfectly legal means of disposal), or has been sent to serve as fuel for an incinerator that was never meant to handle hazardous waste--another perfectly legal means of disposal which EPA has calls "recycling." Throughout the decade, armies of scientists, engineers, and lawyers have gotten wealthy by wringing their hands, scowling into the cameras and intoning, "These are very complex problems, which the public is not able to understand, but believe us, everything is under control." Meantime, the public is in fact not able to understand what's going on because there's so much razzle-dazzle, so much behind-the-scenes dealing, and so much shucking and jiving by all the highly paid scientists and lawyers and EPA flaks. All of the public is affected by what's going on, but most of the public doesn't know it yet. Those members of the public who do know they are affected have turned out in droves and they have become the Movement for Environmental Justice (though many of them may not even know they're part of something larger--they're often just focused on trying to stop the S.O.B. down the block from spewing glop into their drinking water).
If you don't believe this picture of reality, take a careful look at an excellent video called TESTING THE WATERS, cited in our last paragraph, below. This video examines the process that started in 1978 for cleaning up the Niagara River, near Love Canal. Cleanup of the Niagara River is important. The Niagara is a short river with tremendous flow (200,000 cubic feet per second) because it connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario. It is also an important river because twenty-five percent of all Canadians (including everyone in Toronto, Canada's second-largest city) take their drinking water from Lake Ontario. All together, some 5 million people (Americans and Canadians) take their drinking water either directly from the Niagara River or from Lake Ontario, below the Niagara.
The Niagara River is known to most of us because it's the site of Niagara Falls, a romantic symbol of America's power and promise. What many of us don't know is that about a mile above the falls on the American side, there's a huge industrial complex--a cluster of enormous chemical factories-that began to grow in the 1890s and continued building throughout this century. The industry grew there because the site offered cheap hydroelectric power and a convenient place to dump chemical wastes. Whoosh--they just disappeared over the falls.
It was the owners of this industrial complex who created Love Canal and 65 other huge chemical dumps along the banks of the Niagara River. The Niagara River hosts the greatest concentration of toxic dumps anywhere on the north American continent. Love Canal is not even the biggest of them--it is just the most famous. The Hyde Park dump contains 80,000 tons of toxins, compared to Love Canal's 20,000 tons. The S site contains 70,000 tons; the 102nd Street Site contains 80,000 tons; and all stand within a few hundred yards of the river.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Government, the government of Canada, the state government of New York and the provincial government of Ontario formed a Niagara River Toxics Committee to develop a plan for cleaning up the Niagara River. By this time, it was obvious, even to these government bodies, that the situation was dangerously out of control. Toxins were showing up in fish and wildlife at truly alarming rates and scientists and doctors were beginning to examine humans, expecting to find health damage. In the late 1980s, health damage to humans began to be reported around the Great Lakes.
[To be continued next week.]
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: niagara river; hazardous waste system; epa; rcra; superfund; remedial action; cn; love canal; hyde park; landfilling; s site; 102 street site; 102nd street site; lake ontario; zero discharge; chemical industry; lynn corcoran; groundwater;