Polluter Pays

The state of California is in a financial crisis. We are $24 billion in the hole and lawmakers are squabbling over where to cut the budget and putting vital safety nets such as child welfare, schools and health care on the chopping block.

Environmental programs, such as the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, have been slated to be cut entirely, and programs like DTSC (responsible for the Green Chemistry Initiative) are possibly going to be folded into other agencies. Activists, scientists and academics are mobilizing to save these vital state environmental programs, but that won’t solve the problem. We will be confronted by the same issues next year unless we take bold steps to cut cost and generate revenue.

So, why not address the true cost that pollution is causing taxpayers and make polluters pay?

This type of crisis is the perfect time for real change. And that means looking at who is really getting a free ride at the tax payers’ expense. Worker and child exposures to toxic chemicals and pollution costs Californians approximately $2.6 billion in 2004, and the U.S. government is spending $190.7 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to clean up leaking underground storage tanks.

Despite several attempts to regulate toxic chemicals, such as California passing Prop 65 in 1986 and the U.S. joining the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), more than 80,000 untested chemicals are on the market and approximately 700 new untested chemicals enter the market each year. State and federal governments are picking up the cost of health care from air pollution, worker compensation claims for people who have been exposed to hazardous chemicals on the job as well as cleaning up the spill sites.

The environmental and health damages and the total costs to the State associated with environmental remediation and health care remain unknown. These costs are not calculated because it is currently profitable to pollute.

Why not charge a fee for all of the polluting activities that cost the state of California money?

The offending company should pay fees that help fund programs that clean-up the environment and takes care of impacted workers and communities.

The fees should be used to reform state environmental policies and to move us toward a green economy. Not only could fees offset the state’s cost of environmental and health services, but could also help state agencies be proactive in addressing problems, not reactive by fining polluters. The pollution fees could also be used to help state agencies proactively address the problem of pollution by supporting companies that are already located in CA and those that are interested in moving to the state with engineering techniques that reduce workers and community exposure to toxic chemicals. The state can take the lead in developing green technologies by using the fees collected to help support state agencies and universities to develop alternatives to hazardous materials and waste.

Some people say we can’t move toward a green economy during an economic crisis, but after more than 40 years of leveling fines on end-of-the-pipe pollution, the evidence is all around us. The current environmental protection system doesn’t work and polluters have contributed to this economic crisis.

Our static environmental regulatory system has not kept up with the state’s growth or the introduction of new chemicals or new technologies. Nor has it rewarded companies that are aggressively investing in improving their environmental performance.

I don’t have all of the answers of how to reduce state and local government cost for handling hazardous waste, paying for asthma attacks from air pollution, paying for injured workers who were exposed to untested chemicals, or cleaning up toxics spills. But I think this conversation should be started.

So, here are my top 5 ideas for polluter fees that could help reduce state deficits and pollution. Let’s make “polluters pay.”

Here are SVTC’s top choices of polluters who should have to pay fees:

• Producers who use untested chemicals in their products. The rush to get new products on the market has led to an influx of untested chemicals, including nanomaterials that are on our store shelves. Some of these chemicals have been found to cause learning disabilities, cancer, thyroid disease, asthma, diabetes and premature puberty in girls.

• Producers and users of chemicals that are listed under prop 65. These chemicals are known to be hazardous and should be phased out. We should not keep picking up the tab for companies who insist on using chemicals in their products that are known to cause environmental damage and to make people sick.

• Producers and users of chemicals that cause frequent worker compensation claims. Workers compensation in California is expensive. Why should all of companies and workers be stuck with high worker compensation insurance for companies who continue to use solvents that we know damage to workers’ health.

• Products and operations that create hazardous waste. Currently, companies that generate less than 5 tons of hazardous waste a year do not have to pay a fee. Although waste is being generated, revenue to properly handle the waste isn’t.

• Tax autos that pollute and cause asthma.

Do you have ideas on polluters who should pay to clean up THEIR mess? Send us your ideas!

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As a worker advocate, and an advocate for corporate accountability, I applaud your ideas.

Unfortunately, our current governor would consider most of these revenue creating ideas “job killers.”

Despite this current impediment, I do think it’s helpful for like-minded folks to get together and talk in a detailed fashion, about how the state can charge the right people for the cost of pollution.

For example, we could talk about a good way of getting at your worker-toxic-exposure-cost- externalization idea. I don’t think it would work to shift costs onto those employers who use chemicals that cause frequent worker comp claims. That is because these types of claims are more rare than they should be and do not accurately reflect the actual harm done to workers. It often takes decades for an exposed worker to get the cancer caused by his work and all those years later he doesn’t connect it back to the benzene/napthalene/you name it he breathed in everyday at work.

So we’d have to get at this another way. I don’t doubt that it can be done though and this idea, like the others, are great.

Many thanks for this important post.

Despite this current impediment, I do think it’s helpful for like-minded folks to get together and talk in a detailed fashion, about how the state can charge the right people for the cost of pollution.