Superfund and the Polluter Pays Principle

In 1980 the United States Congress took an important step in grappling with the negative externalities associated with hazardous waste disposal; they passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or Superfund. Whereas before, many hazardous wastes, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and arsenic, were disposed of with little regard for environmental degradation and endangerment of human health, now, the perpetrators of such toxic releases past and present are liable for their removal and or site remediation (if the pollution meets a minimum standard for toxicity). Arguably, there have been many inequities and inefficiencies in the functioning of the Superfund system thus far, but overall the program is judicious, has deterred continued pollution and has the potential to instigate remediation of many more contaminated sites that pose a risk to human health.

The hammer in CERCLA is the polluter pays provision. Under this provision, once a site has been added to the national priority list because of toxic contamination, the United States Environmental Protection Agency may require those who polluted it to clean it up. To determine the liable parties, CERCLA promulgated a system of joint and several liability, whereby the arrangers of the pollution, the owners or operators of the land where and when the contamination occurred, the transporters of the hazardous waste to the site, and the current owner of the site are all potentially liable, singly or jointly, for the full cleanup costs. When liable parties cannot be found, the EPA itself can remediate the sites, primarily with funding from a special tax that has been levied (albeit on and off) on certain industrial chemical and oil producers.

Within this framework the EPA has by most accounts not managed Superfund very efficiently, and has been accused of wasting money (e.g. by contracting work to firms that overcharge them, and by choosing unnecessarily costly remediation methods), pinning liability on parties that had insignificant roles in site pollution, ordering the remediation of sites that pose little risk to human health over others that pose a significant risk, and preferentially focusing cleanup efforts on sites near wealthier areas. In fact, it is not only industry groups and individual polluters that decry these problems, others, such as former president Bill Clinton and Ted Williams, a contributing writer for Audubon, are just as quick to point out CERCLA’s flaws. However, implementation of CERCLA has led to the remediation of hundreds of sites and has assuredly stemmed the uncontrolled release of toxics into the environment. Without the polluter pays provision, many fewer benefits like these would be realized.

By holding polluters fiscally liable for their actions, they are much less likely to pollute in the future, knowing the costs that it could bring. Were the remediation of toxic sites to be funded largely by taxpayers, polluters would have much less incentive to alter their product use and waste disposal habits. Similarly, strictly imposing a tax on potential polluters would not necessarily deter their polluting behavior unless the tax were somehow tied to the amount that they polluted. Furthermore, it is most equitable in theory to make the polluters internalize all the costs of environmental pollution because those costs would mostly be passed onto the beneficiaries of the goods they produce; whereas, remediation funded by taxpayers would spread the costs across society, even to those who do not benefit from the pollution (e.g. in the form of artificially low product costs).

Of course, CERCLA can also impose liability on current landowners who bought their property with no actual knowledge of the contamination. This part of the polluter pays provision appears to some as even more unjust than holding the actual polluters liable, but it too has significant benefits. Most specifically, property purchasers, especially of industrial sites, are becoming increasingly thorough in inquiring about site contamination. This growing caution helps keep very polluter lands off the commercial market and increases the chances of the EPA discovering additional contaminated properties. In addition, once prospective buyers make a reasonable inquiry into any toxic pollution on the land, they are usually off the hook for liability of any past on-site contamination that is later uncovered but was not revealed before the sale was made.

It is unquestionable that implementation of the polluter pays provision and the rest of CERCLA has not been entirely efficient or equitable, and many changes need to be made, including improving liability determination, decreasing legal costs, developing a better system of cleanup prioritization and increasing sensitivity to equity. While these changes need to be made, they should be done so within the framework of the polluter pays provision to discourage future pollution and ensure equity of cleanup costs.

Water Conservation: In the West it’s a Must

Contra Costa County, California is often considered a bastion of conservatism, after all, many of its residents are represented in the House by Richard Pombo, the nemesis of the federal Endangered Species Act. However, the county’s most prominent newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, does not always report with such a conservative bent, and sometimes even advocates for environmental conservation.

If you want a few interesting facts and tips about water conservation please visit their site:

Our water supplies are not infinite and it is utter folly to take them for granted as we did in populating the west, our livelihoods and whole fluvial ecosystems lie in the balance.

Your Car and What You Use it For

In today’s Week in Review section of the NY Times there’s an interesting article on how Americans are buying a ton less gas and using public transit way more since the beginning of the summer, and how that’s only increased since Katrina. It includes some very interesting statistics on what driving trends were before this happened. These are all the number of times households used cars to do shit in a given year:

shopping trips: 1990: 341, 2001: 496

trips to church or school: 1990: 89, 2001: 105

trips to the doctor or dentist: 1990: 18, 2001: 47

driving vacations: 1990: 2, 2001: 8

trips to visit friends and relatives: 1990: 149, 2001: 129

It also says that in 1990 the average household could get from New York to Denver on its annual mileage. In 2001 the average household could get to Juneau, Alaska.

Have you ridden the bus lately? If the bus in your area sucks, have you asked your government why that is lately?

Drive Green, Don’t Die

Here’s an interesting little hunk of news from the Houston Chronicle’s Rita Blog that made me proud to come from a two-hybrid family. Link, via.

Here’s why you want to buy a hybrid electric/gas-powered automobile.

Mike Matthews, the Chronicle employee whose evacuation journey was blogged here and here, finally made to his destination of Palestine — 30 hours after leaving Clear Lake.

Via instant message, he followed up:

FYI, Renee and I finally got to Palestine, TX at about 5:45 AM — 30 hours after leaving our house in Clear Lake. The Prius still has about 1/4 tank of gas…

FEMA, Mike Brown, Political Patronage, the Revolving Door and Privatization

The political practice of giving prize jobs to campaign contributors is a time-honored means of rewarding those contributors. The results may vary, and as we’ve seen lately, they occasionally vary towards disastrous. Mike Brown’s appointment to head FEMA was obviously one of patronage, but it goes deeper than that.

In this era of government “privatization” and “outsourcing,” these patronage appointments offer new and exciting opportunities for a new style of federal fleecing, endemic across Washington. It’s standard operating procedure for a political appointee to work in his position just long enough to set himself up in business, then return to the “private” sector to reap the rewards of contracts given to them at their new jobs and companies by the very departments from which they have just departed. The current situation at FEMA is a textbook example.
And, as usual, it leads back to Halliburton. It’s all quite simple, really. Lets review the timeline.

1. Joseph Allbaugh works for Bush campaign in the 2000 election.
2. Bush appoints Allbaugh to the FEMA post, despite him having no practical experience.
3. 9/11 changes everything.
4. Under Bush, massive downsizing and outsourcing at FEMA begins.
5. Allbaugh recommends his college roommate (that frat thing really DOES open doors, you know) to succeed him at the FEMA directorship.
6. With his new lifeline to juicy contracts now in place, Allbaugh resigns FEMA to form the Allbaugh Company.
7. Profit!

(Here’s another useful timeline)

What’s really happening here is that a Bush administration, run by a group of people supposedly distrustful of “Big Gummint” are not only trying to drown it in the bathtub, but to clean up at the trough as well, while the last bubbles of its breath rise to the surface. I find it incredibly cynical that the “Trust me to keep you safe” president has put in place a plan to strip bare the federal department most likely to be needed to do just that. In the aftermath of Katrina, it’s become plainly obvious that we’ve been left to die, while well-connected political operatives enrich themselves in the process of dismantling the means to protect and serve “we the people.”

For Mike Brown, the sad part is that the stupid hurricane came along to muck up the works before he could get involved in the game, himself. Poor Mike. Maybe soon, he’ll be able to “spend more time with his family.”

Wikinews Is Cool

These days knowledge is becoming increasingly open-source, whether it’s done intentionally (on the model of wikipedia and other items licenced under Creative Commons licenses), or by mistake (as big media corporations find it harder and harder to control who takes advantage of their media). Now people are creating new ways to usurp the role of big media, generating content by collective effort and sharing it for free on the internet. One example of this phenomenon is Wikinews, a news portal brought to you by the same folks that brought you the excellent and addictive Wikipedia.

It’s a good resource to check when you’re cruising news sites. Though at this point most articles offer only bite-sized information, some tackle subjects you just don’t see or addressing. It’s worth a look.


I was reading the front page of the times in my cafe this morning. I stopped because I was crying on the page. Its so fucking fucked I can’t fucking believe it. The photo on the front is of a woman feeding her dog in a styrofoam takeout container, ignoring the fact that a dead body is floating by not four yards away.

The photographs I see look in no way different from photos of African refugees trying to escape that continent’s myriad race wars and disasters. Why? The terrain is fucked. The soldiers look indifferent. All the people are black. This country really needs to wake the fuck up on this racism thing. It’s so pervasive. When they evacuated the city they left the poor and black behind.

And really what the fuck? We’re so badly prioritized as a country. Every year thousands of Americans die of starvation, but the one year thousands die from terrorist attacks we decide we’re a martial society and that it’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars and the nigh-tunnel-vision focus of our national conversation to go to war with an amorphous, always changing enemy, while we ignore the fact that we’re killing ourselves from within. We’re simultaneously the fattest country in the world, the richest country in the world, and the country that cares least when its own people starve and die. You can see it walking around New York every day. Not a day goes by that I don’t see a black person with visible evidence that they were malnourished as a child. NOT A DAY. And while we could have waged a war on poverty and put in place programs to make fossil fuel an obsolete source of energy, we waged war on brown people in order to secure more oil and the poor people and the environment in this country are always the first to suffer. Our leaders are so insanely isolated from what real life is like it blows my mind. Sure, George, Get your picture taken with a fancy new guitar. Sure, Condi, buy your thousand dollar shoes. You will never feel any of the repercussions so why should you give a flying fuck?

Apropos of Nothing

I started a web comic this week with my buddy Ben Joseph. If you want a break from politics for a moment, definitely point your browsers at and have a chuckle. There’s going to be a new comic every day for the next two weeks or so, so check it oftenly! Guaranteed funny or your money back.

Katrina as a Weapon of Class Warfare

Boing Boing posted some shocking text yesterday.

My friend Ned Sublette passes along an email attributed to a rescue worker in New Orleans. Ned says: text yesterday.

The poorest 20% (you can argue with the number — 10%? 18%? no one knows) of the city was left behind to drown. This was the plan. Forget the sanctimonious bullshit about the bullheaded people who wouldn’t leave. The evacuation plan was strictly laissez-faire. It depended on privately owned vehicles, and on having ready cash to fund an evacuation. The planners knew full well that the poor, who in new orleans are overwhelmingly black, wouldn’t be able to get out. The resources — meaning, the political will — weren’t there to get them out.

White per capita income in Orleans parish, 2000 census: $31,971. Black per capita: $11,332. Median *household* income in B.W. Cooper (Calliope) Housing Projects, 2000: $13,263.

Consider My Heart Warmed

As a card-carrying liberal I love it when terrorists win. When 9/11 happened I advocated we send a gift basket full of understanding and therapy to the Middle East. When it became apparent that the war in Iraq was unwinnable I partied down outside the President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. When Judith Miller got locked up for protecting Karl Rove from public scrutiny so that public opinion would be good enough to make the second election of George W. Bush plausible I couldn’t have been happier. The terrorists had won. I wasn’t sure how. They just had, and I knew I liked it because I’m a liberal and I hate America.

And here’s one more excellent instance of the terrorists winning!

A forty-year-old British guinea pig farm is to close after a six-year campaign of intimidation by animal rights extremists culminated in the remains of the family’s dead mother being dug up and stolen [...]

A close relative of Mrs Hammond, who spoke anonymously to the BBC, said, “Gladys was a relative of the Halls by marriage only and had no involvement in guinea pig breeding. She was a kind, gentle country lady who loved animals.”


Wooooo! We win! The terrorists win! Take that freedom-lovers! In your face!

Let this be a warning: this is what happens when I post while watching television.