Gary M. Galles - Contributor
Galles is a professor of econmics at Pepperdine University. [go
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Lessons from Love Canal
Superfund and the Law of Unintended Consequences...
[Gary M. Galles] 4/21/04
The EPA is
proposing to take Love Canal off its Superfund cleanup list.
has led some to blow Superfund's horn and
take one more shot at "evil" business polluters.
Angeles Times editorialized that Love Canal was "a
successful cleanup, rightly paid for by polluter Hooker Chemical
Co (now Occidental Chemical Corp.) and a feather in EPA's cap."
Unfortunately, such a response has its history very wrong. Love
Canal is one of the worst blots on the EPA's spotty record. It
is true that the Hooker Chemical Company was required to pay
millions for cleanup. But it was not at fault. The Niagara Falls
Board of Education was primarily responsible.
Hooker's practices at Love Canal were a model of good corporate
citizenship. The site was carefully chosen to minimize pollution
damage. It would have easily met industrial dumping standards
in existence 37 years later. It deeded Love Canal to the Board
in 1953 only after the Board threatened to use eminent domain
to seize it for a school. That deed clearly spelled out the dangers
of the property, and any further sales were to convey the same
warnings. Hooker took the Board to the site and showed them that
wastes were four feet below the clay surface. Its attorneys opposed
Board consideration of selling portions to developers and warned
about inappropriate uses. It was, in fact, exemplary in trying
to prevent harm to the community.
However, after acquiring the property, the Board approved using
fill from Love Canal at several other sites, including another
school site, rupturing the dump's cap and discovering the chemical
wastes at least once in 1954. Then in late 1957, the city of
Niagara Falls installed a sewer and manhole that punctured both
of the walls and the cap of the dump. Another sewer punctured
one dump wall in 1960. It was also punctured by a school drain.
Then record rains in 1976 pushed large amounts of chemicals out,
leading to the first reports of chemical disaster.
It is hardly
a feather in the EPA's cap that the Hooker Chemical Company
excoriated for years and forced to pay over
$100 million to clean up a problem for which it wasn't responsible,
while those in government who were responsible are never criticized.
But that is far from the only problem with Superfund. In 1993,
President Clinton said, "Superfund has been a disaster."
of Superfund have run exactly contrary to the law's intention.
It has been
excruciatingly slow, rather than quick
(less than 10% of Superfund sites have been cleaned up). Its
costs have been exorbitant rather than economical (e.g., the
EPA itself estimated its overhead costs at $450 for every hour
of work cleaning up a site and a recent study found that Superfund
costs over $11 billion per life saved). Much of it has been paid
for by current producers, rather than those firms responsible
for the harm (chemical, petroleum and some other large firms
must pay into Superfund regardless of whether they have contaminated
any sites). And it doesn't even require breaking the law for
the EPA to impose astronomical cleanup costs on a firm; it simply
must designate such a firm as a "potentially responsible
party," sometimes with the flimsiest evidence.
of Love Canal that "everyone knows" is
wrong. And Superfund -- its legacy -- has been an incredibly
costly, inconsistent and ineffective program that abusively and
arbitrarily violates principles of fairness and the rule of law.
Its primary beneficiaries have been lawyers, rather than the
citizens who have been harmed.
It is good that Love Canal has been cleaned up. But it would
be even better if we did the same with Superfund CRO
2004 Gary M. Galles