Think Progress has a piece indicating that East Chicago is “poised to become the next Flint.” The EPA says soil in the area has been contaminated with toxic levels of lead and arsenic since at least 2014. According to the piece, it’s more likely that this problem, or at least its origins, is more like 50 years old.
In 1920, U.S.S. Lead set up shop along the town’s central Calumet River and began churning lead dust, arsenic, and other chemicals into the atmosphere. Around the same time, Anaconda Lead Products opened a few blocks north of U.S.S. Lead and did the same.
In 1973, U.S.S. Lead began dismantling car batteries to recover lead parts. Discarded materials saturated the soil with battery acid. Anaconda Lead has a shorter legacy?—?after shutting down in 1936, the factory’s buildings were demolished and cleared, leaving only lead-rich soil in its wake.
Low income housing was then put in the area. In 1985, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management tested former Anaconda locations and found places with lead levels at 11,000 parts per million. The EPA’s maximum level is 400. In the early 90s, U.S.S. Lead declared bankruptcy. In 1992, the EPA proposed that the area be declared a Superfund site. No action was taken on this proposal until 2009.
It appears that the low income housing facility is now being shut down due to environmental contamination. The shutdown is related to a change in the CDC’s threshold for acceptable lead levels in children.
Occasionally, I feel compelled to take random shots at libertarians. This is one of those times. I think I’m hardest on them because I used to consider myself one. The philosophy is superficially alluring, and I think I’m angry that it doesn’t hold up in the real world. So, what’s the libertarian solution to this situation? For years, it appears, U.S.S. Lead was externalizing the costs of its activity — not necessarily because of anything malicious; just because that’s how business was done back then. Maybe we didn’t really even appreciate the danger. But, the fact remains that its commercial activity resulted in lead contamination — contamination that reduces the value of the real estate and impairs the health of the community. The contamination is a cost. But, because the company was able to impose that cost on unwitting members of the community and on future generations, it did not have to incorporate that cost into the price of its product. The company and its consumers enjoyed a windfall — essentially receiving a subsidy from the community and future generations.
Broadly speaking, I suppose some libertarians might consider that sort of contamination and involuntary subsidy a form of theft; a deprivation of liberty for the people who get sick. But, I think it’s more common for libertarian-minded people to rail against the EPA, regulations, and the heavy hand of government. What’s the solution here? Screw the future? Let people get sick and die?
As a practical matter, I think environmental concerns are a good example of why regulatory schemes are necessary. Safeguards that work well with more traditional property concerns (e.g. court proceedings for trespass) just don’t work that well with environmental situations where boundaries are more porous and damages are more insidious. (The corporate form is another issue at work here. Libertarians ought to hate the corporate form — it’s a government fiction designed to limit personal responsibility. But, mostly I don’t see libertarians speaking out on this issue. And, in this case, we see it at work — the individuals who profited from the transgressions of the lead company will be able to retain those profits while cleaning up the contamination and dealing with the health consequences will be someone else’s problem.)