The Downward Spiral of Detoxifying Land

The folks down on Bay St., Tiverton, where toxic soil from long-ago industrial use of the land had contaminated back yards and led to health problems for residents, just can’t to win:

… the contractor, Envirologic, has stopped work and filed for bankruptcy, leaving many of the homeowners with craters in their yards or replacement fill that has challenged their septic systems and topsoil that may itself be hazardous waste. …
A year ago, residents of the Bay Street neighborhood saw light at the end of the tunnel.
Corvello and her neighbors won an $11.5 million settlement from Southern Union Corp., a major national energy company, in a lawsuit the residents had filed in federal court against the Texas-based utility four years earlier. …
Corvello said the residents could see the bankruptcy coming, because the company had to remove far more soil than it had anticipated and appeared to be having cash flow problems in recent months.

I’ve long been opposed to the litigious route to resolving such problems — a position that has left me open to accusations of favoring Big Business over my neighbors. As is often the case, though, the Party One versus Party Two analysis is less important to me than the principle, and in this case, homeowners bought property without knowing of the problems caused by a long-defunct company that had been bought by another company, which itself did not know of the problems. Not only were the culprits long dead, but they had contaminated the land long before modern regulations.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in an attempt of the property buyers to force the corporate buyer to finance the fix, and ultimately the state government began passing issue-specific laws toward the same cause.
The problem with that approach is that one must monetize the responsibility and settle it. The risk of doing comes in two stages: First, a dollar amount must be determined in advance of repair and then negotiated, all to cover a broad swath of land permeated to an unknown degree. Not for no reason did the liable utility company, Southern Union, opt to hand over money rather than to seek economies by overseeing the remediation. Second, when the problem proves more expansive than first thought, the aggrieved party finds that it has not only absolved the corporation of legal responsibility, but also of moral responsibility.
Had a different approach been taken, combining political and commercial pressure with a public-spirited charitable campaign, the risk that the problem was larger than initially thought would have been spread out. More money might have been extracted from the big pockets, and third parties — right down to neighbors with wheelbarrows full of clean dirt — would be more involved in the remedy.

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