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#188 - Niagara River -- Part 3: A Civics Lesson, 03-Jul-1990

When America's leading chemical company buries millions of pounds of
poisonous chemicals in the ground right next to a major drinking water
supply, then explains that it thought the chemicals would "disappear"
in the ground, what are we to think?

DuPont is the tenth largest U.S. corporation with assets in excess of
$30 billion and several thousand chemists on the payroll, every one of
whom knows that chemicals cannot "disappear" when you bury them in the
ground. The first law of thermodynamics--which is taught to all
freshmen chemists, and has been for at least a hundred years--makes it
impossible for anyone educated in physics or chemistry to believe that
chemicals can "disappear." Yet in 1988 a representative of the DuPont
company (Richard Knowles) looked straight into an educational TV camera
and said with a steady voice, "As industry developed here [along the
Niagara River in northern New York state], practices that were similar
to those used around the world were used here with respect to disposal.
Just as we did in our homes, we sometimes threw the trash in our back
yards.... It was done at a time when people were just unaware of what
the impact of these things would be. There was the expectation that
somehow they would disappear and not become a problem."

Since it cannot be true that DuPont believed the chemicals would
disappear, what did they think would happen? It is evident: they
believed they wouldn't get caught and, if they did, they could put
enough lawyers into the field to fend off serious trouble like major
fines or jail sentences for executives. (At that time, the death
sentence for polluters wasn't even being considered.)

The video TESTING THE WATERS confirms that this strategy was a pretty
good one. The video tells the story of what has happened since 1979
when DuPont, Olin Corp. and Occidental Chemical got caught dumping
hundreds of thousands of tons of toxics into a drinking water supply
used by 5 million Canadians and Americans--the Niagara River, which
feeds into Lake Ontario. The video is instructive because it makes
clear how America's "hazardous waste management" system actually works.
It shows corporations, government and citizens in action. This is what
"civics" is about.

The video focuses on Occidental Chemical (known locally as Oxy),
probably because Oxy created so many huge dumps along the river,
including the dump at Love Canal. In 1979 when the discovery of Love
Canal forced Uncle Sam to search for other dumps, Oxy's Hyde Park site
came to light almost immediately. Hyde Park contains 80,000 tons of
toxic chemicals, including one ton of 2,3,7,8-TCDD, the deadliest of
the dioxins.

Hyde Park sits less than a mile from the Niagara River. The geologic
formation between the dump and the river consists of fractured rock.
The fractures in the rock act like small pipes, through which the
chemicals flow constantly toward the river. TESTING THE WATERS shows
chemicals dripping out of the rock face of the Niagara gorge, with the
river flowing below.

In 1979, Uncle Sam approached Oxy and demanded that the site be cleaned
up. Oxy simply refused. "Sue us," they said. Uncle Sam did. Then Oxy
fielded a team of lawyers and technicians who outgunned the government
at every turn.

For five years, Oxy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
negotiated behind closed doors. Then the EPA emerged to the blare of
trumpets and held a press conference. Chris Daggett, then EPA chief for
the New York region, announced a "far-reaching" agreement between Uncle
Sam and the company. Daggett said that the plan would "curb and reclaim
the chemicals that have migrated from this landfill." He then went on
to say that the "standards of protection for the public, for the river,
and for the environment" are "equal to or greater than any the EPA or
New York state has established anywhere."

Next Robert Abrams, the attorney general of New York state, faced the
cameras and said that, "Today's agreement is a vindication of the
entire process" of negotiation behind closed doors.

A reporter asks the obvious question: how do you intend to retrieve the
wastes that are already loose in the ground and flowing toward the

An EPA lawyer answers by pointing to a map showing a "ring of wells" to
be placed in the ground around the site. The wells will be pumped. The
reporter does not ask any followup questions, so the EPA's plan goes
unchallenged. No one asks how the EPA will know where to place the
wells so that they intersect the "pipes" (fractures) that are carrying
the toxics toward the river. Now one asks what happens if the toxics
are flowing through fractures in the rock which aren't tapped by the
wells. No one asks how long it will take to pump the 80,000 tons of
toxics to the surface using the ring of wells. No one asks what happens
if the ground shifts, as has happened in the past, and a huge slug of
toxics pours into the River all at once.

The remainder of the video adds details that the EPA omitted from their
press conference. For example, in 1981, Oxy and EPA both took the
official position that toxics were not flowing from Hyde Park into the
river. A coalition of citizen groups gathered evidence that forced EPA
and Oxy to admit toxics were reaching the river.

What civics lessons can we derive from this video?

1) Once you make toxic chemicals, there's almost nothing that can be
done about them because even if technologies are available to remedy
the situation, government doesn't have what it takes to force a company
like Oxy to spend the necessary money. Citizens must force companies to
reduce their use of toxics.

2) The government negotiates behind closed doors and this gives
industry the upper hand. In working out "consent decrees" and other
agreements with polluters, the government needs to open up the process
so citizens can see what's going on. Industry wins behind closed doors
because government just doesn't have what it takes. Open scrutiny of
the process by citizens could give government officials the necessary

Furthermore, government is easily fooled by polluters. For example, no
technically competent professionals believe the "ring of wells" around
Hyde Park can capture the pollution that is seeping through the
fractured rock into the Niagara River. Oxy has pulled a fast one on the
government and has literally gotten away with murder. Since we offer
few real benefits and protections for government (civil service)
workers, industry will always be able to field a better team than
government. With few exceptions, our government workers only remain on
the job until the polluters offer them more money.

Open scrutiny of the negotiating process would be a way of augmenting
the government's capabilities, allowing interested citizens, including
those with technical training, to critique the work being done.

3) The courts are a losing arena for achieving cleanup. EPA would be
better off taking their case directly to the people and whipping up
public sentiment against the polluters, rather than taking them to
court. Government could urge citizens to boycott polluters' products,
government could open its files to citizen action groups and urge
citizens to hold their own public hearings. Public outrage is a more
effective lever against polluters than the law can ever be. Government
should rethink its strategy and avoid the courts.

4) Government officials never ask the key question: Is this plan
adequate to protect public health and safety? Instead, they ask, "Is
this better than what we had last year?" Twice on this video, we see
this reaction from government. Once when Daggett announces the Hyde
Park agreement--he doesn't say it will do the job, he says it's more
far-reaching than any agreement the government has ever signed before.
Then when a reporter asks EPA attorney Bill Walsh why they didn't allow
more public participation in the process, he says he allowed more than
EPA had allowed in any other process--avoiding the main issue, which is
that huge segments of the public were excluded and complained bitterly
about it. Mr. Walsh's process may have been better than last year's,
but it wasn't adequate to meet the public's needs.

5) Lastly, it is now clear that the government is committed to avoiding
real solutions to Superfund problems. The only real solution to Hyde
Park is to excavate the chemicals and detoxify them by chemical
processing (which may involve heat, or may not). The government has a
silent rule that guides all Superfund negotiations: we will not
excavate wastes, we will leave them in the ground, no matter what the
cost to future generations. As this video makes clear, if there ever
was a case to be made for excavating a dump, Hyde Park is it. Sooner or
later, if the chemicals are left in the ground at Hyde Park, they will
end up in Lake Ontario. It is inevitable. The lake today contains an
estimated 8 ounces of dioxin and that is already sufficient to cause
health officials to issue warnings about consumption of fish in many
parts of the lake. If a ton of dioxin moves into the lake (or even 10%
of a ton), the Lake as we know it today will be destroyed. To risk that
possibility just to save Oxy some money is nearly unthinkable. But that
is what our EPA has done. An open process, involving the public at
every step, might well have reached a different conclusion. That's what
the 4th of July is really about.

Get: TESTING THE WATERS from Bullfrog Films, Oley, PA 19547; phone
(800) 543-3764; $350 purchase or $75 rental for schools. For citizen
action groups, $75 purchase or $25 rental. You won't be disappointed.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: niagara river; dupont; occidental petroleum; olin
corp; remedial action; landfilling; hazardous waste; hyde park, ny;
great lakes; chemical industry; love canal; epa; groundwater;
superfund; ny;