The Establishment, the people who like to think they control U.S. business and government, are being driven mad by the NIMBY syndrome. It is local democracy in action and it offends them to the soles of their $300 shoes. What they call NIMBYs (and we call the movement for environmental justice) have canceled so many landfills and capsized so many incineration projects, that old-style industrial "progress" is endangered. We are literally stopping up their toilet. As a result, the network of good old boys who own and operate America has now gone on the offensive.
Rather than confront the problems identified by NIMBYs, the Establishment is now attacking NIMBYs themselves.
The longest and most detailed attack came recently from NEWSWEEK. Their cover story July 24 ("The Environment: Cleaning Up Our Mess") dropped all pretense of subtlety and simply took a hatchet to NIMBYs. NEWSWEEK defines the modern day as the "NIMBY Era." (pg. 36) A box headlined "Good Sense for the 1990s" summarizes five "Keys to better environmental policy." (pg. 29) Two of the five "keys" attack most of our readers: "(1) Forget Love Canal: Superfund toxic waste sites are overrated as environmental hazards. Air pollution and global warming pose greater risks, they just don't play as well on television." And: "(2) Arrest the NIMBY Patrols: By blocking construction of new waste facilities, they keep bad old ones in operation." You see? You are really the cause of the problem: if it weren't for you, the good old boys would have already applied technical fixes like secure landfills and modern incinerators and everything would be hunky dory. You say your child was born with a cleft palate or is mentally retarded from the dilute cleaning fluid your family drank for five years without knowing it? These are not "serious" problems, NEWSWEEK wants you to understand: "toxic waste sites pose a threat to the tiny number of people who live next door, but no one else." (pg. 38) And: "It is now ten years after the evaluation of Love Canal, one of the most callous toxic waste sites ever: 22,000 tons of chemicals under a schoolyard. Several children of families immediately nearby had bone deficiencies, cleft palates or mild retardation; one 7-year old died of kidney disease. But no drastic health problems struck the community as a whole." (pg. 38) (For a more detailed report on health problems in the Love Canal community, see RHWN #104; for other reports of human health problems related to chemicals in dump sites, see RHWN #74, #86, #90, #115, #123, #127, and #127 (second article).)
Worst of all, NEWSWEEK simply ignores the threat to groundwater created by the nation's hidden dumps. In fact, NEWSWEEK does not mention groundwater at all. It fails to note that half of all Americans derive their drinking water from groundwater. In an industrialized state like New Jersey (the only state for which we have reliable data), 1/6 of the state's groundwater is measurably contaminated with industrial chemicals, and the contamination is growing slowly but certainly. NEWSWEEK does not acknowledge (their writer may not even know) that the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) said in January, 1988, that U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) still has not evaluated most of the old chemical dumps thought to exist; GAO said EPA knows about 27,200 old dumps but GAO says government files, including EPA files, led GAO to conclude that the actual number of old chemical dumps lies somewhere between 130,340 and 425,480 sites. (See RHWN #65.) Meanwhile, NEWSWEEK reports that, of the 1224 sites EPA has formally placed on the Superfund list over the last nine years, only 27 have been removed from the list because they were fully clean. (pg. 36)
NEWSWEEK says NIMBYs are scaring the public unjustifiably because industry has cleaned up its act. NEWSWEEK gives a lengthy example: Ciba-Geigy, in Toms River, New Jersey. "About a decade ago environmental groups started pressuring Ciba-Geigy to reform," says NEWSWEEK. "After the obligatory hemming and hawing, something clicked in the corporate board room" and Ciba "built a state-of-the-art water-treatment facility." NEWSWEEK forgot to tell you that what "clicked" was the criminal indictment of four Ciba executives for illegally burying 114,000 drums of highly-toxic waste, then lying about it. NEWSWEEK then implies that continued concern about Ciba is a disservice: "What about the weight of anxiety of nearby residents, and millions of Americans, falsely convinced the environment around them is damaged beyond hope?" FALSELY convinced? The Ciba plant sits on the nation's LARGEST Superfund chemical dump--1275 acres of toxic stew (metals, pesticides, dyes, other carcinogens) buried in sandy soil. Drinking water supplies in Ocean County, NJ, have been contaminated. EPA HOPES it can be cleaned up in 50 years; the "cleanup" consists of pumping contaminated groundwater into the ocean, where people are now reluctant to swim, which contributed to damaging New Jersey's tourist industry to the tune of $280 million lost last year. It seems NEWSWEEK had to overlook a few details to make its case.
NEWSWEEK acknowledges that the problem of contaminated dumps has not gone away: "What remains are thousands of locations where contaminants permeate the ground and nobody quite knows what to do about it." But NEWSWEEK tells you this is no longer a serious problem; in fact, NEWSWEEK says "most Superfund sites" are "sort of boring." (pg. 36) If a problem is boring, it's not worth worrying about, right? The Establishment wants you to yawn about Superfund dumps because they've decided dumps are too expensive to clean up. What EPA has learned from the Superfund program is that cleaning up chemicals, REALLY cleaning up chemicals, is more expensive than the chemical industry's investors will tolerate. (Average cleanup cost, so far, has been $10 million per acre, for temporary, incomplete cleanups; see RHWN #86 and #87.) It's cheaper to declare that these problems are "boring," that only a "tiny number of people" are being harmed. It's an easy next step to think of "tiny numbers" of people as expendable. After all, legally killing one in a million people exposed to any given chemical is now official government policy, so why shouldn't we think of "tiny numbers" of Superfund victims as expendable?
But what about the long-term consequences of leaving these dumps in the ground and permanently contaminating the nation's groundwater? Humans can drink Perrier (at least until the Perrier springs themselves become contaminated), but what about the cattle and the deer? Can they be trained to pop the tops off Perrier bottles? NEWSWEEK evidently considers the groundwater problem too boring to mention.
The main point of NEWSWEEK's view of dumps is to convince us all
that a few toxics in our water aren't worth worrying about, and
since they're likely to be there, and since no one is going to do
very much about it, we should relax and grow accustomed to taking
cleaning fluid with our morning coffee and feeding the baby apple
juice laced with carcinogens. This is just the way things are in
the modern world and if you don't think that's OK, there's
something wrong with you. If you try to DO anything about it, to
protect your family, you're a NIMBY who deserves to be
"arrested," a chilling term with dual meaning: stopped, and
detained in custody.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: nimbys; newsweek; children; health effects; economics; groundwater; drinking water;