In early August, the Environmental Protection Agency spilled three million gallons of toxic wastewater in southern Colorado’s Animas River, creating not only an ecological disaster but also a public relations nightmare for a federal bureau that strives to sell the standard narrative of “good government versus bad private actors.” Unfortunately, too many people have taken that message at face value.
Colorado State Senator Ellen Roberts called the incident “an EPA-caused Love Canal”—a reference to the 1978 disaster in upstate New York that spurred major environmental legislation. Media outlets made similar comparisons, and more than one commentator hailed government as a savior in that earlier tragedy.
But contrary to what those analogies suggest, Love Canal was not a case of the feds coming to the rescue after private-sector misbehavior. It was a disaster traceable to government misdeeds.
Before it became a chemical dumpsite, Love Canal was an abandoned, unfinished canal near Niagara Falls. When the Hooker Chemical Company bought it in 1942 for industrial waste storage, the firm was a model of corporate citizenship, carefully choosing the site for its impermeable clay soil and small surrounding population, traits that made it seem well-suited for its new use. (Even until 1980 the site exceeded industrial dumping standards.)
After Hooker capped the dump, it did not try to sell the property. In 1953 it deeded Love Canal to the local school board for one dollar, after the board threatened to use eminent domain to seize it for a school site. The deed clearly warned about the toxic wastes and absolved Hooker from any future liability. Further sales were to convey the same warnings.
Hooker even took school board members to the site and showed them waste resting only four feet below the clay surface. Its attorneys warned them about inappropriate uses for the property and opposed prospective sales to developers, but their words were ignored. After seizing the property, the board approved using its landfill at other sites, including another school, uses that caused the dump cap to rupture and again reveal chemical waste.
More government mischief came years later, when the city of Niagara Falls installed sewers that punctured the dump’s walls and cap as well as a school drain. In 1976, record rains flushed a flood of chemicals out of the site, exposing even more people to potential health risks.
Despite Hooker’s diligence, a court found the company negligent and ordered it to pay more than $100 million to clean up a problem it didn’t cause. Hooker has been excoriated ever since. In contrast, the culpability of the Niagara Falls Board of Education and the other government agencies has been forgotten.
Love Canal later spawned Superfund, the EPA’s toxic sites remediation program—itself a disaster, as President Clinton acknowledged in 1993. Cleanups were excruciatingly slow, and the costs were exorbitant. Overhead expenses totaled $450 for every hour of cleanup work, and various estimates of the cost per life saved run in the billions.
Moreover, Superfund forced much of the costs onto current companies rather than those who had polluted. Companies were required to pay into the federal remediation fund whether or not they had contaminated any sites. The government didn’t even require that illegality be demonstrated—only that the EPA designated a firm as a “potentially responsible party.”
As with Love Canal, the Animas River disaster underscores the dangers of irresponsible government. Hopefully, its legacy will not be to have spawned more bad legislation based on a false narrative. Instead, it should always remind us that in the realm of natural resources, government too often acts less like a competent environmental sheriff and more like a bumbling Barney Fife.