When you don't know an Erin Brockovich

Public access to environmental data on the Internet seems an unlikely high priority for state legislators. The information explosion of the last two years provides every homeowner with the tools to discover neighborhood environmental problems in a few minutes at the computer keyboard.

But there is a growing "digital divide" that will lead to a wave of litigation - unless lawmakers take action to make property information, now available on the Web, available to everyone.

As a former banker and county commissioner, and now as an environmental activist, I can testify that the public quickly becomes politically active when its property values are affected.

Twenty years ago, contamination at Love Canal spawned strict liability and public right-to-know laws. Before the Internet, public awareness about the location and toxicity of toxic sites was buried in dense paper volumes at the National Technical Information Center in Washington.

But the Internet changes all that, making right-to-know data user-friendly. Now property owners have access to free lists of toxic releases in their neighborhood, including maps, at Web sites like www.scorecard.org, www.e-risk.com, or www.nearmyhome.com.

This is where the "digital divide" - the gap between socioeconomic and age groups that use the Internet and those that do not - may become the source of litigation.

One in 5 Americans lives within four miles of a hazardous waste site on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).

In addition to these 1,400 sites, there are roughly 9,000 Superfund sites not on the NPL. This list of 10,000 does not include tens-of-thousands of small sites contaminated by leaking underground storage tanks, old dumps, and small mining operations. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, thousands of contaminated mining sites, some as old as 100 years, contaminate land and water resources.

Buying a home is the biggest investment most Americans make, and one that cannot be made without an appraisal and inspection of the property. But home appraisers in most states are not required to go beyond the property line.

Information that might stigmatize the property, like a leaking underground tank, should be readily available to all parties in the transaction. Non-Web users, senior citizens, and families of modest means should not be at a disadvantage when buying a first home.Also at a disadvantage are mortgage lenders and those institutions which provide a steady flow of mortgage funds by purchasing home mortgages. Information about toxic sites or other hazards is necessary in order to establish fair sales prices.

Only California has enacted right-to-know laws requiring disclosure of nearby environmental problems when a home is sold. (The law originally required only disclosure of natural hazards like wildfire, flooding, and earthquake faults, but appraisers quickly realized that common law required them to disclose everything, including contaminated sites and toxic releases.) The California law works. It adds about $50 to the cost of selling a home, a trivial amount. More importantly, it protects all parties in the transaction - from the real estate agent to the mortgage company - from lawsuits. Most importantly, the law protects a home buyer from unknown perils.

The California law led to the proliferation of environmental databases on the Web which are more comprehensive and more accurate than federal government databases.

The databases are used by real estate agents, savvy homeowners, and others "in the know." State disclosure laws, like California's, would make the same information available to everyone, not just the real estate industry or those already a part of the Internet revolution. Disclosure laws are simple and fair.

They are better alternatives than waves of litigation against realtors, sellers, appraisers, and other middlemen in the real estate transaction - better alternatives than turning over decisions about who and what "should have been known" to civil courts and juries.

*Larry Tuttle is director of the Center for Environmental Equity, which works to protect Northwest public lands from mining degradation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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