Environmental degradation shouldn’t be a credit card system

There’s been talk about the government trying to raise the liability cap, which puts a ceiling on how much the companies have to pay for money lost in, say, an oil spill — the main talking point is that if the ceiling is too high, then only huge oil companies like BP will be able to afford the liability/risk of oil drilling.

Mother  Jones reporter Kate Sheppard, however, made an excellent point about why that’s not a bad thing:

The idea that a company should be able to drill and potentially cause problems that it can’t afford to fix should register as patently ridiculous.

This goes for all realms of activity that involve the environment — you shouldn’t be able to degrade, pollute, and destroy the environment if you can’t afford to clean it up or deal with the consequences. For some reason, this idea of responsibility and liability has often been lost on the environment.

The most powerful evidence of this is the more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the U.S. Superfund sites are toxic waste sites — the worst in the country. It wasn’t until an open-ended canal (Love Canal) that was filled with barrels and barrels of toxic waste seriously began having a detrimental effect on the people who lived above it that the government started dealing with the issue of toxic waste sites.

And even then, the problem of liability was at the forefront. The company responsible for the toxic waste had become part of a larger company, and even so, they had sold the property to the local board of education for $1, and they made sure to wash their hands of any responsibility:

Included in the deed was a “warning” about the chemical wastes buried on the property and a disclaimer absolving Hooker of any future liability.

It’s easy to pollute the environment — it’s a lot more difficult to then clean up that pollution or fix the damage. Or, in the case of mountaintop removal mining, it’s easy to say you’ll clean up the damage when no one is really making sure you keep your word. In many cases, a requirement of a mining permit is to either restore the land to its approximate original state or some other beneficial use.

The Clean Water Act says the government is permitted to ask mining companies “to restore affected lands to usefulness for forestry, agriculture, recreation, or other beneficial purposes,” while the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act states that the government can require that “the acquired land, after restoration, reclamation, abatement, control, or prevention of the adverse effects of past coal mining practices, will serve recreation and historic purposes, conservation and reclamation purposes or provide open space benefits.”

A recent study by Appalachian Voices points out mining companies take advantage of these loopholes so they don’t have to return the sites to their original state — by saying they will convert them to another beneficial and economic purpose, they rid themselves of a more expensive liability. But, the study points out that 90 percent of nonactive mountaintop removal sites haven’t been “converted to economic uses.”

A lack of regulation is a common theme today in many areas — the financial industry getting bailed out after taking risks that it couldn’t afford to pay for if (and later when) they went downhill is the most prominent example. But a lack of liability in the environmental realm has been present for years, as pollution has spewed into the air, into waterways, and even into our bodies.

Considering all we’ve learned from pollution and environmental disasters, it seems like a no-brainer to say, “You can’t be in this business if you can’t afford to clean up your mess.” Why we still let people get away with it is beyond me, especially when those effects trickle down to humans — a lot of people claim environmentalists care more about fish and birds than people, but things like oil spills, mountaintop removal mining, and toxic waste affect people just as much.

We don’t want people driving around without at least minimum insurance because if something bad happens, they need to be able to cover some of the cost. Insurance costs make it difficult for low-income people to afford cars, but I don’t think I’d want minimum insurance coverage to get weaker or even become optional for the sake of allowing more people to drive — driving is dangerous, and the costs need to be factored into the equation.

The same goes for companies who deal in pollution or other activities that involve direct environmental degradation — if you could cause an oil spill that uncontrollably spews thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean every day but you couldn’t foot the bill, then you shouldn’t be “on the road,” so to speak. There shouldn’t be a credit card system for environmental degradation in which you destroy now, pay later, and/or rack up a bunch of debt that you’ll never be able to pay back.

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