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First, Do No Harm

First, Do No Harm

(Clicking any of the underlined text in blue will take you to a reference on it.)

The ancient injunction to physicians – First, do no harm – is good advice for the EPA as it considers massive Superfund cleanups where old, dirty industries once thrived. Superfund is the common name for a 1980 federal statute (CERCLA) designed to clean up contaminated American real estate; it provides broad authority to clean up “hazardous substances” that may endanger public health. CERCLA empowers the EPA to identify parties responsible for contamination and compel them to remediate dirty sites. Where “responsible parties” are not available, the EPA is authorized to do clean up itself. The law has joint and several liability, which means that a business or individual which added even a small part to the site’s contamination can be financially responsible for it all.

Older manufacturing areas, particularly on the East Coast, have multiple Superfund sites where they are legitimate environmental cost-benefit issues to doing a cleanup, as well as financial ones. Riverbed cleanups, where toxic metals and chemicals accumulated over many decades while multiple manufacturers used a river as their sewer, are particularly difficult. Polluters have frequently argued, as General Electric has done for its massive PCB contamination of the Hudson River, that the pollutants should be left in the riverbed.

I tend to agree with GE and suggest that there should be a presumption against EPA’s forcing or conducting a cleanup; it should be EPA’s burden to show that the environmental and health benefits of a cleanup clearly exceed environmental costs. There are direct environmental risks in a complex operation, such as accidental releases of hazardous substances to new areas, and this is particularly true where the cleanup is of a live river which refuses to stop flowing while “responsible parties” fish for buried pollutants. Any cleanup also involves burning hydrocarbons to generate energy needed to capture the hazardous substances and cart them off, and those greenhouse gas emission costs should be considered. Sometimes simple bioremediation works to neutralize the pollutant, as with oil and gas contamination, but large industrial sites often have metals and toxic chemicals that aren’t tamed easily. The solution often has been to dig the bad stuff up, put it on trains, and dump it in some Western desert landfill. The EPA’s cost-benefit analysis should account for the pollutants generated in hazardous substance transport, as well as the damage to the Western land where the bad stuff is left.

American industry has been doing a good job, prodded by various environmental statutes, at cleaning up manufacturing processes while recycling and isolating any necessary hazardous substances. Sometimes environmental sins of the past cannot be undone without doing harms that outweigh benefits, and the maxim should be “leave well enough alone when you can.”


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