Paying for the Fix
In London in 1952, an unlucky convergence of freak meteorology and
smoke caused a “Great Smog” that killed 12,000 people. In 1969, Clevelands
Cuyahoga River caught re. In 1976, a dioxin cloud contaminated over 30,000
people around Seveso, Italy, producing serious illness and birth defects. Two
years later, the problems of the ironically named Love Canal began to unfold
in Niagara Falls, New York; some 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried,
over which a housing development had been built. The company that buried
it had covered it with a clay cap. But during some city construction, the cap
had been breached twice. When it rained, water ooded the clay enclosure
and a toxic brew bubbled to the surface. At that time, a survey of the local
homeowners’ association showed that from 1974 through 1978, 56% of the
children born there had birth defects.
Disasters like these galvanized public opinion to demand protection. Over
the next two decades, a series of landmark laws was passed in the United States
to take on these problems: the Clean Air Act of 1970 (CAA); the Clean Water Act
of 1972 (CWA); the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA);
and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability
Act of 1980 (CERCLA), better known as the superfund law, and others.
When I was a boy growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, I could stand in
the water up to my shoulders and look down to see the bottom. When I was
in law school 15 years later, I would stand in the water up to my neck and
could barely see my shoulders. Now, a generation later, I can see the bottom
again. Thanks to the CWA, cities like Duluth, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland,
Buffalo, and Rochester were forced—and also given massive grants—to take
drastic action to improve municipal sewage treatment. Thanks to the CWA,
now, if you are thirsty while sailing on the Great Lakes, you can fearlessly
put a cup over the side and take a drink.
As the United Nations Environment Program noted in its quadrennial
assessment of the global environment, GEO-4 (2007), we did a good job of
addressing the straightforward environmental threats of the past by doing
such things as building massive sewage treatment plants, requiring gasoline
mileage minimums and catalytic converters on cars, and restricting indus-
trial discharges that pollute the air and water. In the past 40 years, we picked
In 2002, these ndings were contradicted by a New York Health Department Study that con-
cluded that chromosome damage averaged only 3%, which was only marginally higher than
regional averages of 2%. But, by this time, the panic was over. See: http://www.health.ny.gov/

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