Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Costs and Benefits of Pollution Control in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, 1840-1906

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Costs and Benefits of Pollution Control in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, 1840-1906

Article excerpt

In 1866 James Andrews, who owned a farm in western Pennsylvania, went to court to stop the operation of a neighbor's brick factory because it was emitting smoke and acrid fumes that were severely damaging grapevines, his orchards, and other trees, shrubbery, and plants. A few years later the owner of a 40-acre rural estate in New York sought to end operation of a brick factory the smoke and foul fumes from which were damaging his grapevines, trees, and ornamental plants. Both cases went to trial, and each was appealed to its state's highest court. In the first case, Huckenstein's Appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the trial court's decision to impose the injunction, depriving the plaintiff of relief from the pollution created by the brick kiln. In Campbell v. Seaman the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision to impose the injunction (Huckenstein's Appeal (1871); Campbell v. Seaman (1876); see Appendix I for full citations of cases).

From a geographical perspective, the differences in how these two legal suits were adjudicated are at least as interesting as are the similarities. In both instances the justices who issued the final decisions grappled with a dilemma of fundamental importance to all industrializing societies: how best to reconcile the often-conflicting goals of environmental quality and business growth. In each case, decisions were based on balancing doctrine, a legal tenet that required consideration of the economic costs and benefits of imposing an injunction on a defendant and the placement of injunctions only where the benefits exceeded the costs. The judges evaluated costs and benefits in sharply - indeed, almost bizarrely - contrasting ways. Taken in the context of similar cases, the contradictory decisions illuminate how profoundly state political and economic structures shaped the judicial thinking that lay at the heart of nineteenth-century common law.(1)

In Huckenstein's Appeal the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave short shrift to the benefit side; the plaintiff would be unprotected from the damages he was suffering as a result of the defendant's pollution. They declared the plaintiffs suffering of little import because such pollution was the sort of discomfort to which people "voluntarily subject themselves . . . for the great benefit they think they derive" from living and doing business in modern cities (Huckenstein's Appeal (1871), 107).

Judges reserved special eloquence for discussion of the enormous private cost an injunction might pose were the polluter forced to shut down: "A court exercising the power of a chancellor, whose arm may fall with crushing force upon the every-day business of men . . . cannot approach such cases as this with too much caution. Its aid is not of right but of grace, and it must be sure that the exercise of this kingly power is just, wise and proper, before it takes from a citizen his means of livelihood, and destroys the value of his property for legitimate uses" (Huckenstein's Appeal (1871), 106-107).

The defendant could not easily and cheaply close a kiln, relocate it, and put the original site to an equally profitable use, judges held. They believed, instead, that an injunction would both destroy a business and significantly diminish property value. Finally, they used the logic of social balancing to imply that injunctions in this kind of case would lead to the destruction of all urban life.

By contrast, in Campbell v. Seaman justices of the New York Court of Appeals envisioned enormous benefits in protecting a plaintiff from the defendant's pollution. They not only contemplated actual damage to the plaintiffs vegetation caused by sulfuric fumes but also asserted that injury to the plaintiffs feelings and quality of life were beyond calculation: "How can one be compensated in damages for the destruction of his ornamental trees, and the flowers and vines which surrounded his home? …

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