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Posturing Isn’t a Way to Clean Environment

Here come the good intentions. In the aftermath of the Alaska oil spill, one certainty is that there will be new environmental regulations proposed in Washington and new attention paid to environmental dangers. There will be calls for new laws. There may even be new laws passed.

But attention will wane and outrage will fade, as it has so often before, which is why after almost 20 years of laws on clean air and water, the environment is still not a priority in business or even in national politics.

That’s why, nine years after an $8.5-billion federal Superfund was created to clean up hazardous waste sites, very few sites have actually been cleaned up. What passes for an environmental industry is a fragmented collection of small and often financially troubled companies.

Why such chaos? Because environmental issues are often more emotional than economic. Environmental activists see a cause, industry sees a cost and sensible measures are seldom agreed upon. Ordinary people oppose pollution but won’t get out of their cars and don’t want environmental regulations interfering with their jobs.

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So when something like the accident of the tanker Exxon Valdez happens, responses seem incompetent. Nothing is done for a day or two while 250,000 barrels of oil ooze out to make the worst spill in U.S. history--and then it is too late to do many things. There seems to be no preparedness--no equipment at hand to clean up the mess, no instant mobilization of expert forces. If the oil industry or any business ran its other operations as it does environmental preparedness, insurance companies would have a fit.

In the absence of preparedness, we get a state of emergency. President Bush dispatched government officials to Alaska on Tuesday to “take a hard look” at the oil spill and judge whether the government should take over the massive cleanup job from Exxon.

It probably won’t. There will be a lot of political huffing and puffing, but the government ultimately will find that Exxon is doing the job. If it didn’t, the government would be hard put to hire anybody else to do the cleanup anyway.

Exxon, which has its own crisis management people at work in Alaska, is hiring “everybody” in the waste cleanup business to lend a hand, according to a spokesman.

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There are not many firms to choose from, and none of the companies are large or well known. One of the larger is International Technology in Torrance; others include OHM Corp. of Findlay, Ohio; Roy F. Weston Co., a consulting firm in West Chester, Pa., and Canonie Environmental of Porter, Ind.

Over the past 20 years, these and other companies have known the surge of enthusiasm for cleaning up the environment and then the fading of the issue in the 1980s.

“It’s a business driven by regulation and governed by surges of political attention,” says analyst Mark Pytosh of Kidder, Peabody & Co., who says environmental activity has been recovering recently with renewed Superfund efforts to clean up hazardous waste sites.

But even when there’s activity, it’s questionable how much is getting done. “There may be 300 to 400 sites to be cleaned up,” says Pytosh, “but cleaning them up would cost real money, and no government official is going to sign off on a $20-million job. So they spend $500,000 at a time on consultants, and only about 30 or 40 sites have actually been cleaned up.”

Another Wall Street analyst explains the environmental decline in the 1980s this way: “The Reagan Administration wasn’t aggressive.”

But that’s just the point. On other issues, it no longer matters whether one political party or administration is “aggressive.” Fire safety in buildings and workplaces is not a concern that waxes and wanes. It’s a priority, and insurance companies make sure it is taken seriously.

What could make the environment a similar priority? It wouldn’t take much--a decent level of attention, perhaps some unemotional lawmaking. Regulations could be tightened on tankers, for example, to require double hulls and other protection from spills. (The Exxon Valdez was not so equipped.) In the case of tankers, the United States--which imports 2 1/2 billion barrels of oil a year--could legislate protection worldwide. If you want to deliver to the big U.S. market, outfit your tanker properly.

Such measures have costs, of course. But oil spills, especially in choice fishing grounds like Prince William Sound, have incredible costs--which Exxon and its insurance firms will be paying for years.

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Oddly enough, it is the burden of such payments that may well make oil and other industries increase their commitment to the environment--as chemical companies have already done.

Making environmental matters a business priority may not prevent accidents, but it can make them more manageable than the spreading ooze in Alaska seems to be this week.


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