In my previous posts in this series, I've written about some of the industries that have, over the span of the past two or three centuries, contributed much to our prosperity, comfort and convenience, but have also churned out stunning amounts of toxic industrial wastes.
Until recently, what have we done with this vast assortment of unnatural industrial wastes? The answer is we've done the same with them as we have done with our wastes since the dawn of civilization – we have simply thrown them away.
We have dumped them into rivers and lakes and into the ocean. We have dumped them into wetlands. We have dumped them into old mine shafts and into any other handy hole or depression in the ground. We have soiled our communal nest with barely a thought for the consequences. No industry is without blame and, as individuals, we are all complicit in the toxic legacy of global industrialization.
Public concern over environmental problems began to grow dramatically in the 1960s. It was spurred on by the shameful spectacle of the Cuyahoga River on fire due to industrial pollution and Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," a grim view of a soon approaching springtime devoid of the sounds of birds and animals, decimated by chemical pollution. The public demanded increased regulation and it was obvious that action was called for at the federal level.
The result was the "Environmental Decade," an extraordinary period of strongly bipartisan legislative action starting at the very beginning of 1970 and extending to the very end of 1980.
During this 11-year period, all of the major environmental laws in operation today were enacted, addressing air pollution, water pollution, drinking water, pesticides and the management of hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals. Republicans and Democrats in both Congress and the White House were committed to stemming the tide of environmental disaster.
The Environmental Decade culminated on Dec. 11, 1980 with the enactment of what is commonly known as the "Superfund" law. New York and other states followed suit with similar laws of their own. The federal law established a special fund of money, originally (but no longer) paid for through taxes on the chemical industry, which would be used to clean up hazardous waste sites.
The law also created a radical new liability scheme under which the companies that made the mess (recently or long ago, intentionally or otherwise) and those that own the site (even if they didn't contribute to the mess) can be compelled to do the cleanup work themselves or to reimburse the government for the cleanup costs.
Even if the disposal of the hazardous substances was in full conformance with then applicable law - as it generally was - these responsible parties must pay. If the companies are defunct or can't afford the cleanup, the Superfund pays, which means that you and I now pay through our taxes.
The Superfund law has arguably had as dramatic an effect on American business as all the other environmental laws combined. Because its imposition of financial liability appears to be retroactive, not merely prospective, it strikes most business people as highly unfair. In legal terms, it's not really retroactive. Rather, liability is imposed today for past acts that have created a mess that still needs cleaning up today.
And the huge sums of money involved guarantee attention from senior corporate executives – cleanups can often cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Some, such as the cleanup of PCBs from the Hudson River, cost billions.
More importantly, the Superfund law has spurred American businesses to find ways to reduce or eliminate the production of hazardous wastes. The reasoning is simple and sensible: there can't be any future liability for wastes that were never generated in the first place.
Since 1980, more than 1,700 sites have been put on the federal Superfund list. Thousands of additional sites are on comparable state lists. Cleanup work has been finished at two thirds of the federal sites, including the notorious Love Canal near Niagara Falls, which more than any other was the reason for the Superfund law having been enacted. Those where work has not yet been completed are some of the most technically complex, expensive and controversial sites.
In short, we have our work cut out for us, but at least we've gotten started.