Poisoned Water, Contaminated History: A Lost Story of Industrial Water Pollution

Poisoned Water, Contaminated History: A Lost Story of Industrial Water Pollution

The governor of California charges that an industry-backed proposal to deregulate toxic waste disposal would put the polluters in charge of the pollution control setup. The director of the state health department adds that the plan would create “a backlog of water pollution over the State that will constitute a plague comparable to the air pollution in Los Angeles.” These words were spoken not in the 1980s or 1990s, but on June 7, 1949, and the governor was Earl Warren, later chief justice of the United States. A few weeks afterward, the Dickey Act, a diluted version of the deregulation plan that Warren had denounced, became law. And fifty years later, industrial waste dumping has indeed left a plague of water pollution beneath the ground. While billions of dollars are spent on cleanup, the Dickey Act is largely forgotten, and when remembered it is described as a great step forward in environmental control.

As history is now told, the problem of soil and ground water polluted by toxic industrial wastes burst suddenly into the national consciousness in 1978 with the discovery of Love Canal. Soon afterward, the passage of the Superfund law set in motion a massive clean-up. Twenty years later, the work of undoing the poisoning of lands and waters goes on at a cost of billions of dollars per year.

The poisoning was many years in the making. Coal tar lingers still beneath gasworks closed when natural gas arrived in the twenties. Sites of long-forgotten smelters are still surrounded by lead dust. And the manufacture of synthetic organic chemicals, from its first flowering in the 1910s right up to the late 1970s, put a rich variety of hazardous chemicals into the ground. How did it come about that the dumping went on largely unchecked for decades? A simple answer to this troubling question is often stated and widely believed: No one knew. It simply wasn’t understood, the story goes, that chemicals would move downward to contaminate underground aquifers and spread outward with the flowing water. Only in the late seventies were these insidious properties of toxic wastes suddenly “discovered.”

Even among environmentalists and scientists, this account enjoys wide acceptance. A 1999 environmental report card for Southern California, for instance, gives the region an “F” for its past efforts to protect ground water. Yet the grade is qualified by the statement that “in most cases, we really did not know what we were doing.” When events are seen in this light, everyone did what seemed right at the time and no one is really to blame. This conventional wisdom is convenient for nearly all concerned. Industry can escape criticism, and sometimes liability, for the effects of its dumping. Corporate innocence also makes life easier for government regulators, because pollution is usually investigated and cleaned up by the company that made the mess. The control system breaks down unless, most of the time at least, the...