Elizabeth Hartline Green
Beverly Hills, C12H10-9Cl9
Call me naïve, but I always assumed that if the EPA found out that a public school was surrounded by high levels known carcinogens such as asbestos, formaldehyde, or banned pesticides, that the government would have the resources to demand not only public notification but clean-up. Apparently, I was gravely mistaken.
Let’s start with the basics: the Clean Air Act does indeed require major polluters to let the public know about their operations. Meanwhile, the Toxic Release Inventory was created to notify the public of all sources of industrial pollution. But let’s say you’re a business releasing carcinogens into the air, or your industrial pesticides have just been found to be deadly to humans. What do you do?
Recently, the trend has been to either a) sidestep federal requirements or b) lobby for rollbacks in pollutant reporting requirements. Sempra Energy, which was the source of formaldehyde, chromium, and benzene released near Beverly Hills High School, did the right thing and notified the newspaper about the carcinogens in 2004. Surely it was only a coincidence that the notification was only released in a Spanish-language paper, and only 4.1% of Beverly Hills High Students are Latino. I mean, who doesn't read a paper of a language that they don't speak, right? Likewise, school districts across the country have convinced legislatures to overlook environmental contaminants and actively suppressed knowledge of dangerous pollution. Through intense advocacy and a friendly administration, the business community succeeded in convincing the EPA to increase the amount of pollution that must be reported, not require reporting on low levels of certain types of toxins, and only require reporting every other year.
As if that weren’t enough, most state agencies simply don’t have the resources to investigate potential offenders. The opposition to "big government" has struck detrimental blows to state environmental protection agencies, which are our most effective line of defense against large-scale polluters. It is unlikely that the average middle-class proponent of small government actually desires a society in which his children go to a school where the soil is contaminated at 39 times the legal level and school officials can fail to notify parents about the contamination for five months and not face repercussions, a situation now unfolding in Paramus, New Jersey. With adequate reporting guidelines, enforcement, and enforcement, situations like this can be prevented.
There is hope. Congress currently has before it a bill that will restore the original Toxic Release Inventory Act, called the Toxic Right to Know Act. Though it won’t fix our fragmented environmental protection system, it is certainly a start. Meanwhile, President Bush has threatened to veto an environmental appropriations bill that has come before him, in the name of smaller government. Adherence to the conservative philosophy of government as the enemy has created a situation in which companies can release up to 2,000 pounds of toxins directly into the air without reporting it, dump carcinogens over a school and only notify parents through a paper that none of them will read, or take away the means of state agencies to punish schools who allow children to play on playgrounds contaminated with chemicals so dangerous that “even short-term exposure can cause anemia and leukemia."
For more information about environmental justice, check out our Marketplace of Ideas event with Congresswoman Hilda Solis.