The following is an opinion piece written by staff Riverkeeper Frank Chitwood from the Spring 2013 Coosa Riverkeeper Newsletter and does not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, Coosa Riverkeeper, Inc.
What if I told you that taxpayers are spending billions of dollars nationwide cleaning up someone else’s waste? That waste could be making it unsafe for you to have a drinking well on your property, to swim in the river, or to bring home fish from the river for dinner.
Tax dollars are being spent right here, right now to the private benefit of people and companies who have contaminated our community with toxic waste.These polluters externalize their cost of doing business onto the community and onto taxpayers, while internalizing their profits.
It’s happening everywhere. In Gadsden, Gulf States Steel will cost taxpayers around $60 million. Alabama Plating Company in Vincent will cost taxpayers around $15 million. Up to $30 million could also be spent at REEF Environmental in Sylacauga.Those sites are all on EPA’s Superfund list; there are over 1,300 such sites nationwide. It’s just one big polluter subsidy perpetuated by our wasteful government.
Here’s a great example.While still in operation, Gulf States Steel estimated that the cost of cleaning up their Gadsden facility would only be $15,000. Then they went bankrupt.The government reclaimed about $2 million from the company during bankruptcy. Sadly, the true cleanup cost will be 4,000 times greater. It will cost about $60 million to clean up, much of which will be felt by taxpayers.That’s polluter welfare.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is a polluter welfare machine.They blame their problems on a small budget, when the irony is that their lackluster enforcement record is costing taxpayers millions. ADEM will let polluters contaminate our communities and do little along the way to stop it before the violator leaves town. Just ask anyone in Sylacauga about ADEM’s handling of REEF’s pollution.
Free market capitalism is what makes America, historically, the greatest place in the world to live and work. But polluters live outside of free market capitalism, and instead operate under crony capitalism.
Crony capitalism is the collusion of the government and a polluter to divert tax dollars towards paying for pollution costs that in a free market would be borne internally by the polluter. Subsidizing private extraction of public resources is also a form of crony capitalism. As Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. says “Show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy.”
Polluters are toxic not only to our environment and our tax dollars, but also to our free market ideals. It’s unfair to the millions of great businesses in our nation that polluters are allowed to profit off the commons by externalizing their pollution costs and corrupting the government for their own benefit.
How can we end polluter welfare?
1. Incentivize compliance and enforcement. There’s hardly any incentive to comply with environmental laws.There’s no incentive to reduce pollution below lax legal requirements. All fines levied should go directly back to ADEM instead of to the state’s General Fund as they currently do.This would incentivize ADEM to enforce laws and stop catering to polluters.
2. Restitution, not fines. Punishment should be focused on restitution (repairing what was damaged).
3. Strengthen private property rights and tort laws. Government oversight of environmental laws is used as a defense to tort claims made by citizens. Given the government’s poor enforcement record, it should not be a valid legal defense. A private landowner should be able to obtain compensation from any person that damages their property or environmental rights on public property.
4. No sovereign immunity as a defense for governmental non-compliance with environmental laws.The government should be equally liable for their pollution as citizens and companies.
5. Allow citizen lawsuits to proceed. ADEM and the Attorney General have a nasty habit of preempting citizen environmental suits by issuing fines.This protects the polluter from having to face a citizen in federal court where the citizen has power and rights.
6. End corporate cronyism. Private landowners are better stewards of their lands than those who lease land or resource rights from the government. So why do we lease public land to private companies to profit off our natural resources? To encourage stewardship of resources, sell unused public lands to companies that want to extract natural resources from it.They’ll be more likely to treat the land itself as an investment and any cost associated with reclamation will be borne privately and not contribute to polluter welfare.
7. Educate others about the connection between a healthy environment and a strong economy. They go hand in hand. Pollution is hurting the strength of our economy by misappropriating public funds for private expenses and creating unfair advantages for polluting industries that distort a free market economy. Pollution abatement services create jobs; environmental law compliance does not kill jobs.
8. Vote with your dollar. It’s a powerful vote you cast every day. Support local businesses that respect the environment (see pg. 4) and are a boon for the local economy by creating jobs right here.
9. Change your politician if they are aiding and abetting crony capitalism by supporting polluting interests with pork- barrel legislation.
10. Support your local clean water advocates. Part of protecting a river as a Waterkeeper is fighting crony capitalism.We are not funded by tax payer dollars so we don’t impact the government’s budget. Join us today!