Ideology Won't Protect Environment : Pittsburgh Spill Is Reminder That We Have Priorities Wrong

Pittsburgh's oil spill reveals a basic flaw in environmental policy: No federal agency has the authority to regulate oil-storage tanks.

An oil tank containing 3.5 million gallons of diesel fuel collapsed last weekend. A coffer dam contained most of the oil, but 1 million gallons spilled into the Monongahela River, making this one of the worst spills into an inland waterway. Despite exemplary efforts to contain the spill, it now stretches well beyond 70 miles, killing birds and fish and wreaking environmental havoc; the oil may reach the Mississippi River hundreds of miles away. About 13,000 homes are without water, and thousands of workers have been laid off; the social costs will reach tens of millions of dollars.

This environmental disaster has prompted questions about the size of the tank and why it was located so close to the river. What design, construction or operating problem led to its failure? Why did the coffer dam not contain the spill? Determining the causes is crucial in preventing recurrences.

Yet restraint in finger-pointing is needed, because no precautions can prevent all of the problems of the environment. An industrial society needs tanks to hold diesel fuel, gasoline, chlorine and the thousands of chemicals used in manufacturing. Risk is inevitable in building and in using such tanks. Although the best efforts cannot prevent some leakage and spilling, taking more care will lower the number and the severity of unfortunate events. The public-policy issue is how much risk is acceptable, and how much consumption we are willing to trade for lower risk.

During the Great Depression there was a saying that "smoke smelled like jobs," and few protested when the steel mills were reopened and began to spew pollution into the air and water; one result was the hell-hole that was Pittsburgh in 1945. In the late 1960s the environmental movement swept the nation, reminding us that polluted air and water were not only unsightly but also posed risks to human health and despoiled the environment.

Despite numerous polls and elections, some industrialists cling to the idea that they have the right to run their businesses as in the past, making their own decisions as to "how clean is clean enough." The degraded state of the environment that prompted the environmental movement and the dinosaur mentality of some industrialists have tended to cast the environmental debate as ideological: Are you for a clean environment or full employment? Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Americans are pragmatic people with little tolerance for ideological debate; it often is not only a waste of time, it also prevents progress.

California's Proposition 65 is an example of ideological debate, since it is focusing resources and attention on toxic chemicals in groundwater in the parts-per-billion range where there may be no adverse health effects. At the same time, Los Angeles smog levels greatly exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's standard, and there is no realistic possibility that the standard will be met in the foreseeable future.

Western Pennsylvania is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to eliminate toxic water in the parts-per-billion range and little on inspecting tanks containing millions of gallons of toxic chemicals. This spill represents more than one part per billion of diesel fuel in all the water in the Eastern United States.

Something is awry when legislation compels the EPA to focus its efforts on removing a few gallons of toxic chemicals from groundwater while one spill adds 1 million gallons of oil to an important source of drinking water. The rhetoric of the Clean Air Act instructs the EPA to set air-quality standards to "protect the most sensitive group with an ample margin of safety." The Clean Water Act seeks to "eliminate any discharge into waterways."

While fruitless battles continue about environmental ideology, there is little disagreement on major current problems. Is it absurd to conclude that these problems should get our attention and resources? Every few years the EPA ought to draw up a revised list of the most significant problems and focus resources and attention on these. With each new list we will learn how much progress has been made and whether more attention and resources need to be devoted to environmental concerns. Sometime in the future the nation should have made sufficient progress so that the problem of greatest concern would be a few parts per billion of trichloroethylene in groundwater, the subject of an expensive cleanup in Santa Clara County. Although this chemical in high concentrations causes cancer in rats, there are no statistics on the effect on humans. At that time we can have a sensible debate on whether the environment is sufficiently clean or whether the cleanup should accelerate.

If the United States can learn from its mistakes, Pittsburgh's disaster may have been worth its costs. The nation needs to attend to the most significant problems first, and leave ideology to those who are more concerned with debate than with a cleaner environment.

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