The wooden anniversary of The Global Warming Hurricane that struck New Orleans has given the conversations about The BP Oil Spill(s) more gravity and sparked debate about our worst environmental disasters. These spills once again throw a searchlight on our nation’s Superfund sites, and the Program that used to drive it. The Superfund Program is the unpopular kid in this new Green School, but it suffers from some of the same problems inherent to our environmental disasters: incentives for corporations to avoid creating disasters to begin with and giving proper credit to those that are created.
Last year, I finished a feature documentary called Tar Creek, which is about the Tar Creek Superfund Site in northeast Oklahoma. (If you’re on this site, you likely know this already.) Tar Creek had the dubious honor of being the worst Superfund Site on the list of more than 1200 disasters. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was instituted in 1980, basically as a tax of doing business for oil and chemical companies. This pot quickly grew to more than a $1 billion, and they called it the “Superfund”. Before this tax was repealed in 1995, we were spending roughly $1.3 billion per year cleaning up our numerous Superfund Sites. The Superfund has been depleted and is now just a shelter for stimulus money, although Obama has proposed a reinstatement of the tax in 2011. Yet, even when the tax was in place, it did nothing to influence the practices of these companies. Back then, companies who were responsible for creating these hundreds of environmental disasters had a Superfund insurance policy on their inevitable creation of ruin. This became a similar scenario to the day care centers chronicled in Freakonomics. Parents were charged for coming late to pick up their children. Instead of promoting early pick-ups, parents could now put a value on being late. Run me a tab. I got stuff to do, they answered in concert.
Oil and chemical companies had been categorically forgiven; they had paid damages as a matter of operating. No need to think about corporate social responsibility. As far as the environment is concerned, it is only cost to them. Legal fees for environmental cost of damages is never greater than potential revenue. It’s just accounting, and to them the environment is a rounding error. Further still, once a federal program was created to clean up after these corporations, there was really no need for them to pick up after themselves. If their mess were too great, the feds would send in their janitors. Hardly a structure that incents a positive change in corporate practice.
But now that the Superfund is a subterfuge for stimulus, it’s again the taxpayers who are responsible. Responsible to pay for the cleanup and to take charge of their communities: submit them for Superfund status and spin the wheel. While it is wholly unjust to have taxpayers eat the cost of the cleanup and the correlative loss of land and culture, it has also become an almost impossible situation to correct. We are a nation of part-time citizens, and we cannot match in number, influence, or dollar that of a full-time company. Even if we had 10 organizations dedicated to each Superfund Site, making known its infractors and forcing the hands of both government and corporation, it comes down to resources. And there too we lose. It’s not about heart anymore. Or about what’s right. Justice is almost a punchline as we take the threat of jobs more seriously than losing more of our land to mining and sludge. The Tar Creek Superfund Site has exhausted north of $250 million to this point, and our government recently spent $60 million to move all of the citizens out of the 47-square mile disaster. In effect, they declared that 47-square miles of Oklahoma, of the Quapaw Reservation, of our country, bought for less than three cents an acre in the Louisiana Purchase, is not fit for humans. Wildlife is left to decide for themselves.
The cause for the destruction? Fairly defensible, as the lead mined at Tar Creek made the bullets for both World Wars. The reason Tar Creek was so bad? Part bad luck, part governmental racism. Could the same be said for the asbestos mine in Libby, Montana? The arsenic plant in Vineland, New Jersey? The dioxin spill at the posthumous Times Beach, Missouri? This list is long. I’m guessing not every site had “wartime metal extraction” as their raison d’etre. After the last acre of our nation was purchased, we have since allowed corporations to reduce the size of our country, mile by polluted mile. Dead Land Walking. Worse still, we’ve legislated for it. Now we have a foreign country drilling off our southern coast, claiming they can only pay their fine if they are allowed to continue drilling. And while they are holding another press conference, whoops, there goes another well.
Quietly Yellowstone sits, 40,000 years tardy for its next scheduled eruption, smirking at the perspective that we have on what exactly constitutes land and country. That land is federally protected, like the Los Padres National Forest, the Buffalo River, Monongahela, Tallgrass Prairie, Flathead, Ochoco, Kiowa National Grassland. Such colorful names emblematic of our diverse nature, culture, and tribes. These are the names we repeat when taking vacations, tagging Facebook photos, and discussing the fortunate borders of our summer properties. These are the names of the places we decided should be protected. 193 million acres of star-spangled banner imagery, colored green on our maps, guarded by federal rangers with humorless brimmed hats. We’ve put a lot of resources into this land that we refused to civilize. We call them by their appearance and by the Tribes who live there or once did. The biggest failure in the Superfund program was how we named our environmental disasters. Disasters don’t need to be this colorful, but they should be more descriptive.
Times Beach should have been named after Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company. Love Canal: Hooker Chemical. Three Mile Island: General Public Utilities. Tar Creek: the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To be fair, some of them are. In fact many. There are sites named after Upjohn, Monsanto, Union Pacific, Alcoa, and Asarco, to name a few, but the worst ones bear no company name. The best thing to come out of THE BP OIL SPILL(S) was naming the disaster after the responsible. They have tried to call it the “gulf oil spill”, but we ain’t having it. BP just turned in their biggest quarterly loss in 72 quarters. THAT is incentive. The last oil spill that we named 21 years ago made all other spillers responsible for cleanup. Naming it THE EXXON OIL SPILL got it done.
Certainly, if we named all environmental disasters after their perpetrators, we will have a lot of WorldCom two-step. James Fenimore Cooper style. But that won’t fool us. We may not have the time to devote to the 1000+ dedicated spots that we’ve sanctioned for these corporate disasters, but even if corporations change their names, we’ll still associate lead poisoning, mesothelioma, nuclear waste, acid mine water, and all-around devastation with companies. With corporations. Then we will have put both the responsibility for clean up and the culpability for future issues on the responsible, instead of on the devastated. We won’t even need a Superfund tax or stimulus, so it will be balance positive for the taxpayers and will hold harmless those corporations acting unimpeachably. Jobs will be created either way.
And when that caldera in Wyoming cracks, and the Thomas Moran paintings become historical fiction instead of the basis for the world’s first National Park, we will be no more, having had a hiccup of time to make a go of it. In that time, we allowed company-made volcanoes in every state, Puerto Rico, and our Virgin Islands. No matter who goes first—the national park or the global corps—we will all be destroyed. One fate has soul. The other is just a bad way to go.