Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#186 - The Niagara River - Part 1: How Industry Survived Love Canal, 19-Jun-1990

When Love Canal broke into 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 ALSO 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 happens once every 50 years or so. Until a new
industrial apparatus can be constructed, based upon closed- loop
technology with zero discharge as its design goal, the old plants will
continue spewing industrial poisons into the environment. [Any given
plant can make the change anytime the managers decide to spend the
money, but without pressure, they'll wait 50 years.]

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--see RHWN #149), how could
industry survive decades of confrontation with a newly-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?

Luckily, 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 studies and 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 are sanctioning the shipment of hazardous wastes to a
cement kiln or to some other RCRA-exempt incinerator which was never
designed for destruction of hazardous wastes.

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 (though they may be suffocated by paperwork), and
they can continue dumping into pits, ponds, lagoons, landfills, or deep
holes in the ground because the RCRA process has made it all perfectly
legal and has deflected public outrage. While Superfund and RCRA have
accomplished some good by raising awareness of these problems, 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 officially explain 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 away the 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 fiction 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 been cleaned up. And in the intervening 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 1830 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 as fuel to an
incinerator that was never meant to handle hazardous waste-- another
perfectly legal means of disposal which EPA 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, all the regulations are being met
and 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 many deals being cut behind-the-scenes, and so much fancy
footwork 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 STILL 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 company down the block from spewing glop into
their drinking water).

If you don't believe this picture of reality is overly cynical, 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.

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.

Now decisions are being made in the name of cleaning up the Niagara
area. Here lessons will be learned and precedents will be set for the
rest of the country, which is why this video is such an important
teaching tool. If offers us a crystal ball into the future of Superfund
cleanups, and into the continued production of industrial poisons.

[To be continued next week.]

Get: TESTING THE WATERS produced by Lynn Corcoran. Educational version
(an hour-long video in three 20-minute segments designed for classroom
use) from Bullfrog Films, Oley, PA 19547; phone (800) 543-3764. $350
purchase or $75 rental for schools and citizen groups. An outstanding
piece of work.

--Peter Montague

=====

Descriptor terms: niagara river; hazardous waste system; epa; rcra;
superfund; remedial action; canada; love canal; hyde park, ny;
landfilling; lake ontario; zero discharge; chemical industry; lynn
corcoran; groundwater;