The Post's April 12 editorial "Who says for Posion?" poses a serious question - how companies can be moved to "take a larger view of their responsibilites" with regard to hazardous waste disposal.
The Post cites the benefits of such a posture as being a stronger moral position, from which to seek public understanding and a more positive public-relations position. The distressing fact of life, however, is that we no longer live in an economic or social climate where virtue is its own reward. Any leadership-oriented company that steps forward and, with the same 20-20 hindsight often manifested by the media, government or advocacy groups, confesses to situations that may pose harm to the general public, is rewarded not with general approval for doing the "right thing" but probably with a series of class-action suits or government sanctions. Instead of being admired for a positive public-relations program, they find themselves the target of intense investigation as an illustration of how the best can go wrong even though their original actions were considered good operating practice at the time.
One of the things that we must all realize in discussing the solid-waste disposal problem, including toxic or hazardous wastes, is that it is not just the problem of the chemical industry. It is a result of society's advanced technoligy and pursuit of an increasingly complex lifestyle. Man always has been a messy animal, and since World War II, the volume of waste production has kept steady pace with growing industrialization and prosperity. Although some residues can be recycled or reduced at the source, certain amounts of waste are inevitable. Most of these have been disposed of on land (up to 90 percent), which has been cheap and available, until recent years. Environmental laws aimed at protecting the air and water have forced even more wastes onto the land, an acceptable solution, provided they are properly secured.
Disposal practices in the past have often been crude, however, leaving America pockmarked with unsanitary open dumps of the edge of every village and town. Landfills are a more recent innovation, designed to contain wastes and prevent contamination of the enviroment. They can be a reliable disposal method, when properly constructed and cared for. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (which the chemical industry supported) provides for the "cradle-to-grave" maintenance program for waste disposal that a modern society must have. This does not, however, handle the problem of previous dump sites, which may not have been maintained with the same degree of care or with what is today realized to be "best available technology."
Treating the problem of old dump sites, with the clear understanding that every individual and all of industry and even government itself (which has approximately the same number of dump sites containing hazardous materials as the chemical industry) have contributed to this horrible mess, is a matter that will take our best technology in addition to a tremedous commitment of money. Looking for scapegoats will not advance this desirable objective.
Yes, we should know where these sites are. And yes, we should treat them in a priority way depending upon the risks they pose. And yes, we should aggressively pursue regulations to prevent this from happening in the future.
The Post's editorial implies that a more positive public posture by manufacturing companies would engender a more positive public response if the solution to the problem exceeded resources. I think it is manifestly clear from testimony given recently that such will clearly be the case, with estimates of a superfund to stabilize and secure existing hazardous dumps running to the tune of almost $50 billion.
Everyone should realize that the blame does not belong to a single company, or a single industry, but to all of us as individuals and as an advancef society. Rather than looking for scapegoats, we should recognize the dilemma posed by The Post's editorial and consider new ways to encourage the disclosure of dump-site information and ways to limit the crushing liabilities that could result. The resources needed to solve this problem must not be directed at defending lawsuits and media attacks, but must be devoted to the more constructive job of recognizing and correcting past mistakes and protecting individuals from harm, while moving ahead with the environmental goals of preserving our land.
The chemical industry, as a part of the problem, clearly must be a part of the solution.