A Misplaced Focus
The case of the contaminated soil a Tiverton neighborhood just down the hill from me is beginning to exemplify everything that is wrong with our current mix of government ubiquity and the cultural knee-jerk reaction to litigate:
Fiscal woes notwithstanding, the DEM went into the red in the fiscal year that ended in June to pay a Washington law firm nearly $1.1 million to buttress its own five lawyers as it tries to force the Texas-based utility Southern Union to clean up the soil.
Five years after the toxic wastes were discovered and two years after the DEM first called on Southern Union for remediation plans, there is no end in sight to a highly contentious legal battle.
Roger Williams University Law Professor Jared Goldstein has suggested that we might as well make those expenses permanent and “hire eight or nine staff lawyers at $100,000 a year” plus “supporting staff.” DEM Director Michael Sullivan complains that the ability of the energy company to simply outspend Rhode Island in the courthouse is “fundamentally unfair to the citizens of the entire state.”
I’d suggest that what’s fundamentally unfair is a system that gets mired in expensive legally wrangling with the goal of assigning blame and finding somebody else to pay for the horrible remnants of our ignorant past. The article contains hints that there could be another approach:
Southern Union initially cooperated with the DEM in conducting two site investigations of the contaminated area.
But since residents filed a civil suit seeking unspecified damages in 2005, Southern Union has insisted it is not responsible and claims the DEM’s own regulations do not require Southern Union to submit remediation plans.
The parallels between homeowners who unknowingly bought contaminated land and a distant company that unknowingly bought another business with a contaminated history suggest, to me, that a culture that encouraged shared efforts toward remediation of mutual misfortune would be to everybody’s benefit. The search for big pockets seems to come around somehow to costing everybody else money.