True Story

Before we get into an overview of the laws, let me tell you a true story, although I've changed a few facts and names to protect the guilty.

In 1962 or thereabouts, my uncle Sammy owned a metals stamping business in Northern New Jersey where I worked one summer. I was 16. The business made tiny electronic parts out of big pieces of nonferrous metal. Sammy used solvents to clean the parts. I remember the kid that ran the solvent cleaning process was always a little goofy. His hands shook slightly when he smoked cigarettes. But he got paid $2 more an hour than I did and was making payments on a new Chevy Impala. Every week or so the solvent tank had to be emptied because the solvent was saturated with dirt, grease, and metal fragments. The tank was pumped into 55 gal. barrels and these disappeared once a week.

So what did Sammy do with the barrels? In the old, old days, Sammy just heaved the barrels into the dumpster and his waste hauler, Tony Soprano, would make the contents of the dumpster disappear. The City picked up residential solid waste, but businesses and industries hired their own waste hauling contractor, although both the City and waste haulers used the same landfill. Tony had a monopoly on the industrial waste hauling in that area because of his persuasive personality and alleged connections to organized crime. But in the early 1960's, the landfills had a series of fires, some of which burned for weeks and months, some firemen (they were all males in those days) were injured by fumes and the landfills started inspecting industrial waste and not permitting any liquid waste. Tony told my uncle Sammy that he could no longer handle the barrels of waste solvent. But, says Tony, he has an uncle, Uncle Junior, that specialized in disposing of industrial liquid wastes.

So Uncle Junior starts hauling the drums. One day Sammy reads that an industry was successfully sued because its barrels with spent solvents were found in a public park. Sammy stops Junior one evening (Junior usually worked at night) and asks Junior if he was qualified to dispose of industrial liquid wastes. Junior gave Sammy a funny look and says, "Sure." He produces his drivers license, motor vehicle registration, and a business license, which says, "trucker." Sammy is satisfied, besides Junior's firm is incorporated and has an ad in the yellow pages.

What did Junior do with Sammy's barrels, and the other barrels and boxes of stuff he collected from other industries? Junior's corporation rented a large industrial lot on sandy soil. He would haul the waste onto his lot. The liquid he would carefully pour into an unlined pit, where it would percolate out of sight. The boxes and such he would stack up on one end of his lot. As environmental issues became heated and articles appeared in the paper about industrial waste, businesses who generated the waste became nervous. That was a windfall for Junior, because he could charge more and more money for hauling waste. Junior got wealthy and bought a condo in Boca.

One day Junior's lot has a fire, firemen arrive, put the fire out, but the stench stays and his neighbors file a lawsuit against Junior. They say their well water is poisoned. Junior then says, "!!**%% you." Then his corporation files bankruptcy. Junior retires to Boca. The landlord repossess the lot, discovers the boxes and residue in the pit, has them analyzed, and discovers all sorts of toxic gunk in them. What does the landlord do? She stops paying property taxes. The city then takes the lot for back taxes. The city health inspector checks the lot and realizes that the soil is contaminated and the watertable below is contaminated. She condemns all the wells in the neighborhood and asks the city to put up a big fence around Junior's former operation.

What you American students of the 21st century might find impossible to believe is that, up to this point, in most states and under federal law, everything that has happened so far was completely "legal." The city, state, or federal government had no criminal case against Sammy, who created the problem, nor against Junior, nor even against Junior's Corporation. In most localities there were no laws against what had happened. Now the neighbors and the city had a pretty good civil lawsuit against Junior's corporation, but that corporation is bankrupt. They can't get to Junior, because the corporation limited his liability. They might have sued Sammy, but he was just one of hundreds of Junior's customers. The damaged parties would have to prove that Sammy knew Junior was creating a nuisance with the spent solvent AND even then, Sammy would only be liable for the fraction of the damage that the neighbors could prove came from Sammy. Meanwhile the landlord might sell his assets to a shill company and declare the corporation that originally owned the land bankrupt, leaving the city with no recourse, except to hold onto the contaminated lot. To this day, US cities have billions of dollars in potential value of real estate that is useless because it is contaminated.

In a similar way, rivers became polluted, the air stank, degradation of the natural environment followed. (A New Jersey joke, "Never trust air you can't see.") Workers became sick, and people blamed their ill health on the situation. While few people liked pollution, through the 1950's most citizens accepted pollution as the price of industrial progress and prosperity. The 1960's saw a radical change in people's attitudes about pollution. A benchmark in the awareness process was the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. You'll read more about that later. The 1970's saw a plethora of environmental laws passed (all those letters stand for particular laws -we will spend time on some of them) and this trend continues today.

Today US environmental laws are comprehensive, but not concise. They are administered by several agencies, chiefly the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) but there are other agencies involved. Further the laws are administered by different programs within those agencies. In many cases there are state and local laws that also control discharges to the environment.

End of Submodule 2A

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