EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK these days, one toxic chemical or another seems to be gushing, leaking, leaching, blowing or seeping into some place it shouldn't be. Saturday's paper was a festival of these stories. There were no fewer than five separate accounts of accidental or planned mismanagement of chemicals and chemical and radioactive wastes. The stories ran the gamut from illegal dumping of wastes into abandoned mine shafts (from which they later leak into the water supply) to a cloud of mysterious gas that swept across a Kentucky community sending 30 people to hospital emergency rooms. Five stories may be unusually high for one day. But the mounting number of such incidents over the past year suggests that we make a mistake to treat each as an isolated event. Rather, they are part of a big and frightening national problem.
The first thing to be said about this problem is that it is not the result of a lot of mindless malefactors throwing poisons around aimlessly because they have nothing else to do. Whether the subject is nuclear energy or agricultural pesticides or any of the other trouble making substances and technologies, we are talking about harmful side effects and consequences of enterprises undertaken for some desired benefit. The problem is, first, knowing how to judge and tame the associated risks (we still know relatively little ) and, second, getting the government and commercial and other entities involved to accept the restraints that are vital to the protection of people and resources. And there is evidence that in both the operation of plants that make or handle dangerous substances and the disposal of wastes, these restraints are being violated or ignored. A few months ago, a company in Houston was accused of illegally disposing of hazardous wastes by mixing them with motor oils that had been used by contractors to surface dirt roads. The substances? Nitrobenzene and cyanide, both deadly. The company involved was no Mafia-owned midnight dumper, but the country's largest waste handling business, Browning Ferris.
Again, documents recently uncovered as part of the government's lawsuit against Hooker Chemical (the perpetrator of the Love Canal disaster) reveal that top company management approved illegal practices flagrantly violating air-and water-pollution permits. A Hooker-owned phosphorous plant in White Springs, Fla., sometimes discharged as much as 100 times its allowed daily level of flouride gas. The same plant knowingly violated its water pollution permits on at least three counts -- fluoride, phosphorous and pH (a measure of acidity). The river into which these discharges were made is the Suwannee, of Stephen Foster fame, and the only major river in the area that remains relatively unspoiled. The company is alleged to have satisfied environmental licensing requirements by altering its processes in order to collect phony test data and then returning to the illegal mode.
What is important is that such stories are no longer exceptional. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are about 100 dump sites around the country that already pose an immediate threat to health. Meanwhile, new hazardous waste is being generated at an annual rate of between 30 and 40 million tons, and new chemicals introduced at the rate of several thousand per year. Safe exposure levels have been set for only about 1 percent of the 70,000 chemicals already in use.
Against this flood, existing government resources are pitifully inadequate. New laws that will help are on the books, but it's going to take time to make them work. In the meantime, assistance from the courts will remain crucial. Corporations must be held accountable for the actions of their employees. A welcome precedent was established last week when a jury held Olin Corporation guilty along with three of its former employees for illegally discharging mercury into the Niagara River. Penalties, including jail sentences, need to be personally applied to company managers who knowingly direct or allow illegal pollution or withhold evidence of dangers to the health of workers or consumers. Yes, it is harsh -- but not nearly as harsh as what may befall those who are the victims of these poisonous substances.