Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma

By Harold C. Barnett | Go to book overview

PRODUCTION, DISPOSAL, AND CONTAMINATION
CHAPTER 2

Hazardous wastes pose a substantial threat to public health and the environment. They are generated as raw materials are extracted, refined, processed, and applied to the production of useful goods. When hazardous wastes are disposed of improperly, they contaminate soil, air, surface water, and ground water and threaten the well-being of humans and other organisms.

Information on generation, disposal, contamination, and risk is integral to the regulatory process. Knowledge of the nature and extent of potential damages creates a demand for legislative action and shapes the regulatory response. At the same time, implementation results in the gathering of additional information that alters perceptions of the problem and evaluations of the regulatory response. Agencies gather information to fulfill legal mandates and to write the rules that give specificity to the law. The regulated and environmental communities gather information to oversee, evaluate, and critique law and its implementation. Despite, or perhaps because of, the centrality of information to the regulatory process, substantial uncertainty surrounds much important data. Uncertainty emerges from the limited ability of scientists and engineers to determine the contents of hazardous waste sites, to identify the pathways of contamination, and to gauge the risks posed to public health and the environment. Uncertainty is enhanced by the political environment within which data are generated and interpreted. With billions of dollars and millions of lives at stake, advocates and opponents of regulation choose and interpret data to give force to their arguments.

While the dangers associated with hazardous waste have been acknowledged for centuries, the threat posed to the United States is of relatively recent origin. It has followed upon the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the chemical revolution of the early twentieth century. Despite a century of

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