The Environment: Back to Basics

IMAGINE that oil from 85 Exxon Valdez spills found its way into the oceans in one year. Think of the damage that would cause to aquatic life and other ocean resources. Sounds incredible? Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens every year. According to the National Research Council, an estimated 3.5 million tons of oil end up in the sea annually. Although large spills such as the Valdez and the Mega Borg grab the headlines, scientists say that almost 90 percent of the yearly total comes from other, less publicized sources. Indeed, the largest single contributor to this deluge of petroleum goes almost unnoticed: routine discharges of oil-contaminated wastewater from industrial polluters. These discharges, into waterways and sewage treatment plants throughout the country, are occurring every single day of every year, and the cumulative effect is staggering.

As someone once said, ``There oughtta be a law.'' And, in fact, there is. Eighteen years ago, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (better known as the Clean Water Act), which regulates industrial discharges of oil and other toxic substances from tens of thousands of discharge pipes around the country. The requirements of the act are straightforward. If a company chooses to deposit its pollutants into a waterway or a municipal treatment plant, it must abide by certain limits. Discharge of more than is allowed by these limits is a violation of the law.

Like too many other environmental laws, however, the Clean Water Act is being ignored - overwhelmingly so. A US General Accounting Office study of six states in 1983 found that over 80 percent of the major industrial dischargers in those states were operating in violation of Clean Water Act limits. More recent studies in Illinois, Ohio, and Connecticut have reported similar findings. The problem, it appears, is that far too many companies simply take it for granted that the law will not be enforced.

A good example is the General Electric jet engine plant in Lynn, Mass. Throughout the 1980s, GE routinely discharged large quantities of oil from this facility into the Saugus River, a few hundred feet upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. On six different occasions from 1984 to 1986, GE deposited so much oil into the river that its discharges were classified as oil spills by the Coast Guard. The government's response: a whopping $7,000 in fines. Predictably, the discharges continued.

In a recent case involving P.D. Oil Company of New Jersey, US District Court Judge Nicholas H. Politan put the problem in appropriately stark terms: ``The case before this court presents another chapter in the never-ending American environmental tragedy. A recalcitrant company in the private sector of the economy combined with the lethargic enforcement of the applicable statutes and regulations ... have caused a continuing, if not constant ... pollution.''

It's time to get back to the basics in protecting our environment. While we need new laws, such as the Oil Spill Prevention Act and the revised Clean Air Act now before Congress, we have to start enforcing the laws already on the books. Enforcement is where the rubber hits the road. All too often, it is also where our local, state, and federal governments get off the road to environmental protection.

Federal, state, and local agencies need to place more emphasis on enforcing environmental regulations. In some cases, this will require increases in staff and other resources. More often, it will require more efficient management, and a more aggressive attitude toward penalizing polluters.

Citizens don't need to take a passive role in the process. Most federal environmental laws empower affected citizens to bring enforcement actions directly against polluters. It was through such actions, for example, that General Electric was finally ordered to bring an end to its routine oil pollution in Massachusetts, and that P.D. Oil was fined $3.2 million (one of the largest fines in Clean Water Act history) for its years of environmental recalcitrance in New Jersey.

Enforcement may not be pleasant or glamorous, but it is essential. Big oil spills rightly focus public attention on environmental issues, but the need for strict and sustained enforcement is too easily overlooked. Let's all stay focused on enforcement. Let's make sure our agencies - and the companies they regulate - can't ignore the fundamentals of environmental protection.

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