Facing lawsuits today, facing victims harmed by industrial pollution, the captains of industry plead ignorance as a defense. They say, "We didn't know. Twenty years ago, we didn't know these chemicals were toxic. We didn't know that putting them into the ground would contaminate the soil or the groundwater. We were ignorant. We're sorry, but it's isn't our fault. No one knew."
As we continue our series, "What we must do," we will now examine the truth behind such claims. After all, if destruction of the earth's resources by chemical dumping has happened because of ignorance, then one set of remedies will seem appropriate. If, on the other hand, destruction of the earth and the poisoning of people has been deliberate, then the remedies we seek must be quite different.
We have spent this past summer looking carefully at the history of American industry and its effects on the earth and on people. In the next few weeks, we will present evidence that 30 years ago--in the 1950s (and in many cases long before)--the full consequences of environmental pollution were recognized. The geographic extent of the problem was not known, but individual polluters had in hand all the key pieces of information that they needed and that they have today. Specifically, they knew about the hazards of the chemicals being handled, the consequences of air pollution, the whys and wherefors of water pollution, including both surface and groundwater pollution. The problems associated with landfilling were recognized. The creation of what we call Superfund sites was understood as it was happening. The present situation did not come about by accident or by inadvertence. It came about because of deliberate decisions.
Furthermore, government agencies had available to them the same information that industry had. In many cases, governments had better information because they could see the big picture as the information flowed in. Government agencies chose to interpret their situation to conclude that they did not have legal power to curb the pollution, but they clearly had plenty of power to study the problems, publicize the problems and generate public support for curbing the flagrant destruction of people and the earth. The failure of governments adds up to a story of timid collusion.
Industry and government knew in the 1950s that all landfills and lagoons leak. No one even argued otherwise. So far as we can determine, the first people who started saying that "secure landfills" could be built were officials inside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1970s. We can find no peer-reviewed scientific or engineering literature in which authors say they believe a leakproof landfill can be built; these ideas seem to have been born only in reports created by consulting firms and by government officials, reports not subject to scientific peer review. Industrialists and government specialists knew that chemicals dumped in the ground would contaminate soil and water. They knew that poisoned air would make some people sick and that others would be killed. This knowledge evidently made no difference to the people in power. It is not a pretty picture.
In coming weeks, we will present evidence to support these
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: landfilling; water pollution; culpability; liability; responsibility; epa;