Hazardous Homes in Herculaneum
CASE 7.1 Hazardous Homes in Herculaneum
twenty- five miles or so outside of st. louis, Missouri, lies little Herculaneum, a town of only 2,800 people.
Looming over the town’s economy and the local environment is the Doe Run Company’s lead smelter,
which dates back to 1892 and is the largest in the United States. For more than twenty years now,
federal and state regulators have been after the company for polluting. In 1991, they required Doe Run
to replace the contaminated topsoil in the gardens of about ninety houses in the vicinity of its smelter.
In 2001, a study found that 24 percent of the children under six living within a mile of the company’s
plant had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Doe Run now has agreed to clean up the site and
has started installing new pollution- control devices to prevent further contamination. 100 In the
meantime, however, environ-mental investigators have found lead levels as high as 300,000 parts per
million on a road used by the plant’s trucks. Because of the health hazard that lead contamination
poses, the state has put up signs warning residents of Herculaneum not to let children play outside, and
the federal government is helping out by advising people to alter their diets to resist lead poisoning (
the gist: Don’t drink tea but eat more liver, eggs, whole- grain bread, and ice cream). Not so surprisingly,
many residents of Herculaneum find this sort of assistance insulting. Instead, they want the federal
govern-ment to step in, declare Herculaneum a Superfund cleanup site, and use federal funds to buy up
the whole town. The Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA), however, believes that adding Herculaneum
to the long list of places seeking a Superfund buyout will only delay a solution. The EPA is right not to
exaggerate the speed with which Superfund projects move. When Congress created Superfund in 1980,
sponsors of the legislation believed that the program could mop up the nation’s worst toxic dumps and
other dan-gerously polluted sites within five years and do so for a rela-tively modest $ 1.6 billion, to be
covered by sales taxes on chemical and petroleum- based products. Superfund was
authorized to recover its costs from the polluters themselves and to use this money to pay for future
cleanup efforts. In this way, Superfund would become self- financing, with industry, not the taxpayers,
picking up the tab. But the hopes of Superfund’s sponsors have yet to be realized. Congress has
repeatedly had to pour money into the program to keep it going; there are continual complaints about
inefficient, top-heavy administration, and to date only a portion of the coun-try’s most environmentally
damaged sites have been restored. Moreover, Superfund has grown increasingly and stagger-ingly
expensive. Its cleanup efforts have become mired in lawsuits, with the resulting litigation costs climbing
to the stars. The problem, many observers believe, goes back to the initial Superfund legislation, which
permits the EPA to penal-ize companies for dumping and polluting that was not illegal at the time it
occurred. In addition, it makes individual pollut-ers liable for the entire cleanup costs of toxic sites that
may have been used by many other firms. Corporations dislike these liability principles, and they find it
less expensive to resist the EPA in court than to pay up. “ From the individual corporation’s
perspective,” says David Morell, a toxic removal consultant and an expert on Superfund’s history, “
lawyers’ bills are still cheaper than paying for an entire cleanup.” And he adds: “ The longer you can
stall— and convince yourself that you may never have to pay at all— the more the legal fees seem like a
bargain.” As a result, a flood of lawsuits has slowed Superfund’s cleanup efforts to a crawl while the
costs of those efforts have ballooned. “ The idea [ behind Superfund],” Morell says, “ was supposed to be
‘ shovels first and litigation later.’ Instead, it has become ‘ litigation first and shovels never.’” Many
experts agree that Superfund has become a financial black hole. Legal fees, transaction costs, and
administrative overhead associated with its cleanup projects are projected to exceed $ 200 billion.
Others put the bill as high as $ 2,000 per person— paid in price increases on countless everyday
chemical and petroleum- based products. And this sum doesn’t pay for the removal of hazardous wastes;
it covers only litigation- related costs. According to critics, Congress has done little to solve the
problems with Superfund, except to keep digging deeper into the national coffers to keep it going.
However, Congress did exempt small businesses from Superfund liability if they contributed only a
relatively small amount of hazardous waste to a targeted site, and it required the EPA to consider a
company’s ability to pay when negotiating a settlement. For its part, the EPA contends that it is making
good progress. It reports that 1,306 or close to three- quarters of the toxic waste sites designated as
National Priorities List Sites have been cleaned up. Still, every day of delay increases the cleanup costs
as waste from untreated sites seeps into the ground water and increases the size of the polluted area. “
These sites are not like fine wine,” John O’Connor, director of the National Campaign Against Toxic
Hazards, has explained. “ They get worse with age, and they get more difficult and costly to clean up.”
Meanwhile, back in Herculaneum, Doe Run has— in accord with a plan drawn up with the state of
Missouri— purchased more than 130 local homes. Some of these it has torn down; others stand vacant.
The buyouts have removed many young children from harm’s way, but they have given many blocks of
Herculaneum an eerie ghost- town quality. Doe Run continues to operate its lead smelter, but despite
advice and prodding from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the plant still regularly
exceeds legally permissible limits on lead emissions, and Herculaneum remains one of only two places in
the nation that fail to meet federal air standards for lead. Although it may be too late to help poor
Herculaneum, those standards are getting tougher. In response to a lawsuit by an environmental group
and a couple from Herculaneum, in 2008 the EPA significantly tightened air- pollution standards for
lead— the first update in over thirty years.
DIS CUSSION QUESTIONS
1. Identify the values and describe the attitudes that have contributed to pollution problems like those
at Herculaneum. How would you feel if you lived in Herculaneum?
2. Do individuals inside the company, now or in the past, bear responsibility for causing the
environmental damage at Herculaneum, or is it only the company as a whole? Is that responsibility
shared by anyone outside the com-pany? Should families who moved to Herculaneum have known
3. Who should pay the costs of cleaning up Herculaneum— the company? the town? the state of
Missouri? the federal government? What if the cost of restoring Herculaneum exceeds Doe Run’s
resources? In general, whose respon-sibility is it to clean up the country’s hazardous pollution sites and
4. Was either the government or Doe Run morally required to buy the most contaminated homes? Should
anything else be done for those families? What about the rest of the town— should Superfund purchase
all of it?
5. Is it fair for Superfund to fine polluters for dumping or polluting that was legal at the time it
occurred? Is it fair that each individual polluter have full liability for cleaning up environmental damage
to which others also may have contributed? How might Superfund be made to work better?
6. With regard to pollution in general and the disposal of toxic wastes in particular, what are the
obligations of indi-vidual manufacturers and of society as a whole to future generations?
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