Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Times Beach, Missouri, 1982

The products manufactured by NEPACCO at Verona, Missouri were useful, even important.  But the products contained within themselves the seeds of our own environmental destruction.  Making TCP for hexachlorophene resulted in unwanted by-products, and those by-products were wastes.   The wastes required disposal that, in turn, served to drag down the bottom line.  We should not be surprised that the company looked for ways to reduce its costs.  NEPACCO cut waste disposal costs by hiring a small-time waste oil hauler who had no experience and no facility for disposing of the toxic wastes.  No sampling of the wastes was done to determine its contents and dangers.  No one at NEPACCO bothered to follow up on where or how the wastes were disposed.  That lack of supervision or oversight — the blind eye syndrome — provided Russell Bliss with the freedom to dump the waste wherever and however he chose. 

In turn, the company should not be surprised that it would be held accountable for the problems created by the irresponsible disposal of their wastes.  That is a bedrock principle of efforts to protect our environment  — the polluter pays.

During the unfolding of the Times Beach disaster we see that it is not just private corporations that get the rest of us into environmental trouble when they cut costs.  The government can be just as culpable. When Bliss’ disposal practices finally caught the eye of federal environmental authorities, the Reagan administration placed former industry representatives in control of EPA, who proceeded to gut enforcement and technical support for the Superfund program, under the guise of cost savings.  When the government cuts costs and resources necessary to protect our environment, the public pays, as did the people of Times Beach with added risks, anxieties, illness, and injuries.  The Reagan administration’s reaction at Times Beach, where denial, delay, and obfuscation characterized the response, stands in stark contrast to the Carter administration intervention  at Love Canal and Three Mile Island.

EPA representatives who were supposed to protect the public from exposure to toxic substances argued that the test results from Times Beach were insufficient, that more studies were needed.  They argued that there was uncertainty in the results of what was known and that only with certainty could the government commit resources to clean up Times Beach and relocate affected families.  Like the private chemical company in Minamata, the government manipulated uncertainty around the data to avoid taking action to protect the public. Fossil fuel interests, and their government supporters, sing this refrain about uncertainty and the need for more studies to avoid taking action to address global warming.

While some public authorities looked for excuses to avoid taking action, others saw their responsibility lay with protecting the public and acting pursuant to the precautionary principle where a public agency is obliged to act to protect the public even though, or even especially, when there is uncertainty about the effects.  Daniel Harris of EPA and Dr. Phillips of the local health authority, joined forces with Judy Piatt and Frank Hempel to gather the necessary facts, to document what they saw, to test the contaminants, and to bring pressure to bear on those reluctant to act.  Unfortunately, corrective action was a long time coming at Times Beach. 

By the time the authorities began to investigate Times Beach, flooding complicated the cleanup.  As at Love Canal, a winter storm spread contaminants to a wider area.  When action was finally taken, we witnessed, as we did at Seveso and at Love Canal, a dislocation of the public.  The dislocation at least took people out of harm’s way, but the cost was not inconsequential.  Businesses and jobs were lost, families were uprooted, countless familiar objects were displaced with the unfamiliar, once settled patterns of living were upended.  And like victims elsewhere, the people formerly of Times Beach could only wait and hope that they and their children were not subject to future illnesses because of the exposure to dioxin.  Our vulnerability is deepened in disturbing ways as a result of environmental disasters.


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