Act With Patience or Panic? The EPA Lets Demographics Decide, by Syd Gernstein

A New Visions Commentary paper published December 2001 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research * 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

Residents of the affluent Spring Valley community in Washington, D.C. will wake up this Christmas morning to open presents, eat coffeecake and maybe even brush snow off their SUVs and Mercedes as they have the past 15 years. Despite living with a potential environmental threat literally under their feet, the government has yet to move them off the land.

That wasn’t the case in Times Beach, Missouri in December of 1982. While residents exchanged Christmas gifts, they received holiday greetings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that were anything but cheerful: “If you are in town it is advisable for you to leave and if you are out of town do not go back.”

Overnight, residents’ lives were turned upside-down. They were forced to abandon their homes and their possessions in a hurried and thorough evacuation reminiscent of a disaster movie.

In Spring Valley, however, things are being handled differently. Despite Spring Valley’s location above a World War I chemical weapons test site where the occasional 80-year-old ammunition is still unearthed, EPA officials in biological and chemical “moon suits” have not arrived to transport people to shelters.

One federal agency, two local communities and two similarly-uncertain natures of contamination. Yet the EPA treats the politically-connected and affluent community of Spring Valley with patience while it handled the less-influential community of Times Beach with panic.

If Times Beach were an affluent community, would the EPA have treated its residents so inhumanely? Probably not. After all, there was no hard evidence that the feared chemical, dioxin, was harmful. Panicky EPA campaigns, not facts, spurred fears.

The facts indicate dioxin is not as dangerous as the EPA and environmentalists led us to believe. It certainly is not dangerous enough to warrant the evacuation an entire town. While writer Michael Brown describes dioxin as potent “beyond imagination” and cites environmentalist claims that “if three ounces were evenly distributed and subsequently ingested among a million people… all of them would die,” the Department of Veterans Affairs says a form of acne “is the one human effect universally linked to dioxin exposure.” Today this acne is the only observed side-effect in inhabitants of Seveso, Italy after a 1976 explosion exposed them to some of the highest concentrations of dioxin ever recorded. Despite claims by alarmists, there is no evidence that dioxin causes cancer.

Dartmouth College Chemistry Professor Gordon W. Gribble, Ph. D. says the problem is chemophobia – “The ignorant and irrational fear of chemicals.” Just because something is a chemical with a complex name does not mean it is dangerous. In fact, dioxin is naturally produced in forest fires and soil. Considering the media portrayal of such chemicals, it isn’t surprising the public is susceptible to chemophobia. Shouldn’t the EPA be immune to it?

Today, the EPA official who ordered the Times Beach evacuation admits that it was “unnecessary” and an “overreaction.” Apparently, the agency did not consider the devastating effects its panicked response would have on the Times Beach residents. The fact that Times Beach residents were powerless to fight back probably also influenced their actions.

When the EPA deals with people who have the means and power to fight back, chemophobia is suddenly replaced by prudence. The Spring Valley region of Washington, D.C. is populated by the powerful and the wealthy. For 15 years, the federal government has known chemicals such as arsenic and mustard gas contaminate the region.

Did the EPA respond to the contamination in Spring Valley with the panicked chemophobia that ruined the Christmas of Times Beach’s 1,400 residents? No. To the contrary, the investigation has been characterized by an almost phobic reluctance to displace a single resident – a reluctance the displaced residents of Times Beach surely wish the agency had extended to them.

EPA officials know whose neighborhoods they investigate. They know that residents of locations like Times Beach are powerless to fight it. They also know that the lawyers, media stars, wealthy businessmen and future presidents who live in Spring Valley could ruin their careers. With so much power to do so much damage, shouldn’t the EPA always proceed cautiously?

If evidence of ground contamination is ever found in my neighborhood, I sure hope I’m living next to Senator Joe Lieberman instead of Joe Shmo – otherwise, who knows what the EPA will do to me.


(Syd Gernstein is a research associate for Project 21. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.