Saving the Environment

GUEST: Jo Thomas
VTR: 7/1/1983

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Today’s program is a shade different from our usual venture. Environmental matters are very much on the minds of many Americans of course. And usually when we deal with such a subject I invite someone from the field itself. Today however, I thought it might be interesting and productive to turn instead to someone whose task is to probe our subject matter from the outside as an investigator or reporter or editor responsible for helping put together what the public is told, in this instance about our environmental crises. Jo Thomas is in that kind of spot as Assistant National News Editor for The New York Times.

Thanks for joining me today, Jo. You know, there’s been so much said, so much written about our environmental crises that I wonder, as I’m sure many people do, whether it’s all over played. Are we worried to an extent disproportionate to the threat that faces us?

THOMAS: I don’t think we’re worried enough. And that’s what really frightens me. for many years we’ve made a big effort to clean up water and to clean up air, to monitor the emissions from cars, to get secondary and tertiary sewer treatment for drinking water, and we’ve felt pretty good about it until the recent revelations that indeed our environment may be far more polluted by toxic chemicals than any of us ever imagined. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that we had tests for things such as dioxin. And I think the dimensions of just how serious the contamination of our drinking water, the ground that we’ve built our houses on, and other parts of the environment, I think we’re only now beginning to have some sense of how polluted it may be.

HEFFNER: Then I suppose I should ask you, just how serious is it?

THOMAS: We don’t know. I don’t think the EPA knows. And it’s only been recently that this has been coming to light. You may recall last fall, after a lawsuit where an EPA said, yes, there may be a few parts of the State of Missouri that were contaminated by dioxin. And it wasn’t until the press went out there and began taking a map and where the sites were that it came to light that people lived in some of these areas. And since then we’ve found that there’s been sites in New Jersey and indeed they are all over the country. And in many cases the testing for it hasn’t even begun, so people still work and live on top of this.

HEFFNER: Jo, does that mean you think that what we’re dealing with here is an area of ignorance or an area of bad intention?

THOMAS: Well, maybe both. It was thought for many years just in the case of dioxin for example that it quickly evaporated in sunlight and therefore wasn’t a problem. And nobody realized that it could persist in the ground for such a very long time. And as I say it’s only in the last few years that the technology has been available to test it. I think people didn’t really stop to think that if they took waste from a manufacturing plant, lead sludge from paint for example, they didn’t stop to wonder whether or not it leaked into the people’s drinking water of if they injected toxic chemicals in wells deep down into the ground that maybe there might be a fissure in the rock in which the chemicals could then come back up and then contaminate what people drank and the food they ate.

HEFFNER: But wait…You make it sound as though this is something brand new, this concept of poisoning the environment.

THOMAS: No, no.

HEFFNER: Well then why didn’t we know these things or why weren’t we more concerned about investigating these matters before this?

THOMAS: Well, I think because they weren’t perceived as a risk, and sometimes the information was proprietary. For example, Agent Orange of which the most toxic kind of gas and TCDD could have been a contaminate was known during the War in Vietnam that there were terrible side effects of this herbicide. The studies were classified at that point. And later when the chemical companies got together to talk about heir worries about…contamination of dioxin it was proprietary. It wasn’t made public. So it’s only been in recent years that the public, the members of Congress contend with regulatory agencies that don’t want to regulate in this field, finding out. And the citizens are finding out that the danger exists. Yes, we’ve known about DDT. We’ve known about other kinds of, we’re trying to do something for years about lead poisoning in houses. But here is a whole new group of things to worry about.

HEFFNER: You talk about regulatory agencies that don’t want to regulate. What do you mean?

THOMAS: Well, basically the Environmental Protection Agency under the most recent administration has just, and actually in years before that, before the Reagan Administration, didn’t do very much with the information that it was getting about the danger of dioxin for example. They just, they didn’t move on it.

HEFFNER: Okay, now we’re getting into something else. Because to begin with, you talk about ignorance. We just didn’t know.

THOMAS: And there has been ignorance, I think. Or incomplete information.

HEFFNER: Okay, let’s say ignorance and incomplete information. But now you’re talking about something else. You’re talking about an unwillingness, it seems to me you’re talking about an unwillingness to dig further. That you’re talking not so much about information as about attitude.

THOMAS: Well, I think that that’s true. Stringfellow Acids, Inc. in California is the classic case in which the government has now dues all the dumpers for the money to clean up the site. And I guess maybe they’ll spend $40 million trying to figure out what to do. In the meantime however no one had yet given the money for health study of the residents even thought what is leaking out of that and going into the water of the surrounding community contains many, many, a whole bouquet of toxic chemicals. My question is why has the EPA refused to even make a study of the health effects? The State of California is now doing a statistical study to justify another study. In the meantime, what about the people living on top of this and their care? And if we find out that yes, the chemicals are making them sick, who’s going to pay for their medical bills, who’s going to pay to clean up that site? It’s going to be very expensive. It’s also very expensive to get rid of toxic waste properly. It’s much easier just to give it to a trucker and say, “Here you are. We’ll pay you for it. No question asked, thanks. Get rid of it”. To take it out and burn it in high temperature incineration or to take it out to sea is extremely expensive.

HEFFNER: You say, “Extremely expensive”. I guess the question that I would ask in terms of your digging around, in terms of what reporters’ dispatches you’re read, etcetera, is it possible – not is it expensive – have we opened up Pandora’s Box here? And not in terms of how much it’s going to cost us; in terms of the potential, the possibility of ever getting this garbage back into it?

THOMAS: Yes, I think so.

HEFFNER: You think we can do it?

THOMAS: No, I don’t know whether we can. For example, the sites that have been contaminated with dioxin, the government is buying out the homeowners. What they’re going to do to clean up the site nobody’s too sure of. You’ve got to take off the top level of dirt, and then you’ve got to do something with it. Well, you could have burned the dioxin-contaminated oil in the first place. But in terms of what you’re going to do with all the contaminated dirt, I don’t know. When they were going to haul all the rubbish away from Times Beach the people in the community adjacent to the dump laid down in front of the trucks. They didn’t want all that contaminated dirt coming into their community. I don’t know where it’s going to go.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that this kind of public reaction, public response works? You said they laid themselves down in front of the trucks. Did that work?

THOMAS: Yes, for awhile. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: for awhile.

THOMAS: Ultimately they lost.

HEFFNER: Tell me why.

THOMAS: Well, it had to go somewhere. And it went in that dump. And there was a huge police escort, and the material was finally taken to the dump. It couldn’t sit there with dead animals in it and rot in Times Beach. You may recall that Times Beach was flooded as well as having had dioxin pave its streets a number of years before.

HEFFNER: so as you look at this as an editor, or a writer, reporter, journalist, what do you think is going to happen?

THOMAS: I don’t know. I don’t think we have any idea yet how seriously the problem is.

HEFFNER: Meaning you think it’s much, much, much more serious, not that it’s a question, but that it’s much more. Is that the intent of your comment?

THOMAS: Well, I think as we keep looking we may find an amazing number of places which are similar to Verona, Missouri. For example, the plant in Verona which produced the dioxin which has contaminated that state closed when hexachlorophene was banned. We haven’t yet taken a look at the other places in America that made hexachlorophene and whatever happened at those plants or what steps were taken to get rid of the dioxin or to clean it up. I don’t know what’s out there.

HEFFNER: Well, what do you think about the posture of the regulatory agencies now?

THOMAS: Well, EPA has said it will move as fast as it can. It didn’t have any enforcement people until quite recently. There simply was no one doing the policing who was in a position to file suit or to insist that the law be complied with here and now…a number of people who are going to go out and enforce the environmental laws, which is certainly a step in the right direction. But in terms of having enough money to do the cleanup, I don’t think they do. If you have 50 investigators and we have thousands and thousands and thousands of toxic dumps, I don’t know. And many companies will continue to generate toxic waste. I’m not so sure that we can rely on voluntary compliance.

HEFFNER: You know there is, sure, every time there is some major story that you people uncover, then there are pictures in the paper and there are episodes that are reported on television, let’s say. And you see these poor people who suddenly become aware of the fact that they’re living on top of a stick or a pile of dynamite. Everyone gets excited. But what chance really, do we have as a people to exorcise these ghosts if in a very real sense when we can control our own personal individual environments in terms of our taking care of ourselves we don’t do it? We’re not a people who are eminently careful about our diets. We’re not eminently careful about smoking or anything like that. Why not just sort of assume we pay a price for technological, industrial progress and that’s it?

THOMAS: I think the question is “who pays the price?” We sent a reporter around Missouri. He was in a community of people who really, they were working people. They didn’t have much money; many of them didn’t have education. At first when they realized the situation they felt it would be very unpatriotic to complain to the government about it.

HEFFNER: Is that really what they thought?

THOMAS: That’s correct. And yet I saw, on of the most poignant things that I saw, which is not something you can put in a newspaper, was a list, our public health nurse had gone around the community, and a list of family ailments. And there were things on it like, oh, “Child four years old, such and such kind of cancer. Infant, such and such months, kidney problems”. There are no names. I don’t know who these people are. They don’t know why they’re ill. Maybe they’re ill because they would’ve gotten cancer anyway. Maybe they’re ill because they were exposed to toxic chemicals. None of them are benefited that I know of from the production of that plant in Verona, Missouri. They’re paying that price. And I’m not sure that that’s fair or just that the people that get no benefit suffer. It’s not really the same thing as somebody who chooses to smoke knowing the facts about smoking and cancer.

HEFFNER: You know, we’re talking about the most dramatic aspects of this problem, of these problems. But it seems to me that we have had reported to us in the past a general kind of deterioration of our environment. It may not be quite that dramatic, maybe not get the headlines in your newspapers or others, but it’s just as serious. And I wonder if we’re running some risk in focusing on these wastepiles, on these dumps, and on the incredible damage as you describe it that’s being done to the individuals around there without going further into what we are doing to our general environment. I wonder whether you find yourself so focused on these stories that the larger question of generally the degradation of our environment is kind of passed over.

THOMAS: Oh, well, editors in the heat of a daily assignment may be guilty of that. But I don’t think the American public is particularly. If you’ve noticed the recent polls, they’ve shown that environmental concerns have zoomed to the top as the issue of public concern. The environmental law and people who are interested in the environment used to be thought of as people who wanted beautiful parks up in the mountains or people who were concerned about the snaildarter. It was nice to be concerned about those things, but if you lived in a lot near your house, in our tenement in the city, or if you didn’t have a job, or if your children were going to school and getting a terrible education, really a nice park out in the Rocky Mountains wasn’t much interest to you if you lived in downtown Detroit. But I think now environmental issues of the broad variety are being seen by people as being more than just having a place that’s pretty. I think that we will see a greater concern and a greater kind of that concern to political issues in the future.

HEFFNER: Okay, that’s the question that I wanted to ask you about because to say that people are concerned is one thing. That too has its drama to it, that the polls show this is one of the things most on our minds. But what do we do about that? I don’t note that we have demonstrated at the polls that kind of interest or that kind of power, yet you’re suggesting it.

THOMAS: Well, it will be interesting to see the degree to which the Reagan administration is held responsible by the voters to revelations or the allegations that is to say, because we don’t really know yet. The congressional committees are continuing their investigations. But it does seem part and parcel of a feeling on the part of the administration that the laws of the marketplace can apply to the environment as well. You know, it is expensive for business to operate properly. So it greatly adds to the cost of doing business. There’s been sort of a laissez faire attitude toward the environment I think on the part of the administration. It will be interesting to see the degree to which they’re held responsible. I don’t think we know yet. But if you delay cleaning up something like the Stringfellow Acids spill which I mentioned earlier, because you don’t want to give Jerry Brown any credit, which has been alleged, that’s fairly serious. I would think that that would bother the people who live in California a little bit.

HEFFNER: Jo, you still make it sound as though tit’s a matter of what you’re willing to invest in or pay for cleaning up the mess we’ve made. Have your investigations, has your digging, have the stories that have come before you not indicated anything that would lead you to feel this can’t be reversed? It’s not a matter of it’s going to be very expensive? We are ruining our environment. We are poisoning ourselves, our water, our air. And that it’s not just a matter of, well, it’s going to take a lot of dollars to clean up. I mean, do you get that larger, more frightening feeling of it?

THOMAS: Well, studies of water supplies of the nation’s major cities have shown that the majority of them have contaminated water, water polluted by one thing or another. Now, there aren’t many things more important to us than the water we drink. We can’t drink poisoned water. As I say, we’ve looked at it for bacteria for a long time, but we haven’t learned how to check it for dioxin until just recently. And heaven only knows what else is in the water. I don’t know whether we know yet whether we’ve irreversibly fouled our own next. I don‘t want to sound hysterical or alarmist, but I’m beginning to be very worried about it. New Jersey is described as Cancer Alley. One might ask why and how many other New Jerseys we might have in this country that exist and that we need to take a look at yet.

HEFFNER: There have been some reports of the relationship between organized crime and the disposal of wastes. Anything that a good journalist can indicate about that?

THOMAS: Well, you might say, “Who cares whether organized crime owns the toxic waste dump anymore than they own a restaurant?” The question is, “What difference does it make?” But the difference that it makes is that these folks will do anything for a price. I can pay them and they will take away my worries. I don’t then have to pay to have them disposed of properly. And it’s not my business what they do with it.

HEFFNER: You mean, you said, “Take away my worries”. Take away my worry about disposing of it, not disposing of it?

THOMAS: That’s correct. And it’s no skin off my nose if they then take it and sell it as contaminated fuel oil to be burned in apartment buildings in New York, which has been happening, if they mix it with garbage and put it in dumps intended only for garbage, which then leaks into the water supply, if they flush it down the sewer systems, as they’ve done, or if they just take it out on a road somewhere and open the spigot, which they’ve also done. A group of people who will murder for profit aren’t really too worried about opening a spigot on a truck full of toxic chemicals and putting it on the ground out in the country someplace.

HEFFNER: And you think this is for real?

THOMAS: Well, we’ve had indications that it’s for sure happening in the New York/New Jersey area. There are several other places in the country that we’ve had reports this is happening, and we’re taking a look at that right now.

HEFFNER: Now, are you satisfied with what the reaction is on the part of law enforcement officials in this area?

THOMAS: Well, they’re just now taking a look at it. It used to be that there was a sort of macho element in law enforcement. Investigators, both sate and federal, are delighted to go after bank robbers and kidnappers and people with guns and all of this. But to go and take a look at dumps, I mean, that has not been something that they’ve had much interest in. And that’s been a big hindrance, the lack of any kind of assistance from the FBI for example in prosecuting environmental cases. I think that a toxic dump can damage a lot more people than an armed robber, even an armed robber that holds up a lot of grocery stores.

HEFFNER: Jo, is there any indication that there is an active political movement involved with the environmental movement at this point? I mean, I know some years ago there was. Then somehow or other that seemed to be diminished in strength. What about now?

THOMAS: I think the environmental groups have strength lobbying in Washington. I think that they have gotten increased credibility with Congress. Because members of Congress are getting the message from their own constituents that they’re worried about this.

HEFFNER: Now, you’re not referring to the wilderness groups again?

THOMAS: No. I’m talking about people who are worried about the safety of the water they drink, who don’t want a toxic dump in their community. They don’t want it in their county or their town. So I think that members of Congress at least are talking to the environmental groups. And in that sense, on a very much of a grassroots level, I see some progress. I don’t see that it’s become a big national political issue yet.

HEFFNER: What has happened, though, to the other groups, the softer groups if you will, those that aren’t dealing with immediate questions of life and death, the wilderness groups, who are thinking in much longer-range terms about the good life? Are they losing as what comes to the fore is a manifestation of real demand at this time?

THOMAS: No, I don’t think so. I think the other groups bring them along with them. And once people begin thinking about the quality of life, the quality of their water, the quality of their food, that they then might also be interested ion whether or not there’s any shoreline left of whether it’s allowed to be built all over, or whether certain species which are important to the environment die out. I think, frankly, that they’ve been helped by this broader concern about, granted, more immediate and shocking problems.

HEFFNER: Those who are not terribly concerned with both of these fields share a kind of disregard for human life and human futures in a very real sense. And I would ask you whether it’s possible to identify in this country areas where there is more positive, successful, productive concern about the environment then perhaps in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago? Are there places in the country where you can say, look, on a state level, on a regional level, people are really banding together effectively?

THOMAS: Well, I think they’re banding together with a sense of fear and desperation at the…The State of Louisiana for example, has severely contaminated water and water supplies…for cities like Baton Rouge are threatened by toxic chemicals because of things which have happened in the past. There there are lawsuits, there are state officials who are trying through legal means and enforcement proceedings to get things cleaned up. And I think frankly that you tend to see the most progress and the most concern where people feel the most at risk. The problem is that there are many places in America where people don’t realize the risk because they’re going about their daily lives, they don’t see anything, they don’t smell anything the way you’d smell an open sewer, and they don’t realize that they’re…If they get sick, now are they gong to prove that they wouldn’t have gotten sick anyway? That’s the real terrible part of this whole problem.

HEFFNER: Jo, what’s happening in other parts of the world? Just in the couple of minutes we have left.

THOMAS: Well, the Europeans have, we have the same technology that they do, but they seem to have made a little bit more progress in constructing places to put hazardous chemicals, and to say, “We can’t just bury them underground. They won’t stay buried”. Almost all landfills leak. They’ve taken existing technology and are building and planning to build places to handle the problem. And in that sense, the Europeans are ahead of us.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that the degree to which they are economically disadvantaged by that concern, by taking care, is there any indication that they are at a competitive disadvantage to us because of that concern?

THOMAS: I can’t cite a specific example in which they would be.

HEFFNER: So that those of us in this country who say we will be disadvantaged need merely to look to the Europeans who, I gather, you feel you don’t see any such signs?

THOMAS: Well, there hasn’t been any talk of it. It may be that there is some. But the question is, what does it really cost, and how do you, what to you put into that formula?

HEFFNER: Well, isn’t it more just what you’re going to have to do no matter what it costs?

THOMAS: Well, and the public health, what kind of price do you put on that?

HEFFNER: But that’s the strange thing. I would have thought that in this country there would have been a primal and basic concern for public health which seems to have been manifest more overseas than here.

THOMAS: Well, we’ve hoped for the best and have sort of, no one had wanted to say either, for an umber of years in the Center for Disease Control or the EPA, “Wait a minute, we really have a problem here. We’ve got to do something about it”. People have taken a look at the studies and sort of hoped that it would go away.

HEFFNER: Do you really believe that? They just hoped it would go away?

THOMAS: Well, they feel, basically, “It’s not my responsibility. Nobody’s told me specifically I have to do something about it”. So for years, in the case of Missouri, nothing was done.

HEFFNER: And you think then we’re talking about bureaucratic disease?

THOMAS: Buck-passing, yeah, I think we are.

HEFFNER: You have a feeling, I gather, that this may be coming to an end at this point.

THOMAS: I hope so. But we haven’t seen a lot of action, a lot of initiative in places that the press has not zeroed in on. And we’ve certainly been lambasted by a lot of people for making a big fuss about it. But there are many parts of the country in which the press has been the only group making a fuss about it.

HEFFNER: Jo, keep on making a fuss. Thanks so much, Jo Thomas, for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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