David R. Henderson  

Henderson on Latest Love Canal Book

What do markets tell us about ... India's money shortage...
But the real story of Love Canal isn't the "corporate guys: bad; government guys and community activists: good" tale that many people believe. In its February 1981 issue, Reason magazine published an exhaustive, fact-filled, 13,000-word article on Love Canal written by independent investigative reporter Eric Zuesse. The article dramatically recast many of the characters in Brown's reports, including Brown himself. I recently asked Reason's longtime science writer, Ron Bailey, whether further information in subsequent years had led him to doubt any important factual claims in Zuesse's piece, and he replied, "I am not aware that his article has been contradicted or found deficient in any important way."

In the years following that article, when I read about Love Canal, I do so with an eye on two topics: (1) Does the work discuss Zuesse's version of the story? (2) Does it challenge his claims? Those questions were on my mind as I read the latest addition to this literature, historian Richard Newman's Love Canal. Newman does not mention Zuesse, but he does raise some of the issues that Zuesse did. Disappointingly, he ultimately ignores those issues and adopts much of the story that Brown presented.

These are 2 key paragraphs from "Down the Memory Hole," my review of Richard S. Newman's book Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present," Regulation, Winter 2016-2017.

Another excerpt:

This failure is not just a careless slip. In one section, for example, Newman writes, "It all came back to the concept of justice, for Love Canal families felt that they had been sacrificed on the altar of profit and power." It seems far more accurate to say that they were sacrificed on the altar of the local school board's power; the idea that for-profit Hooker sacrificed them is hard to maintain in light of Hooker's warnings not to disturb the site. Moreover, elsewhere in the book, Newman refers to Hooker's "newfound concern" in 1980 with the "public's health and safety." Newfound? As documented above, Hooker stated and, more important, acted on its concern in the 1950s.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Mike W writes:

This seems to be an argument for the need for a federal EPA to protect the public from both the private sector and the local government. What might a libertarian alternative have been?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mike W,
What you just stated was a prayer. You were praying that the EPA protect the public.
Why do I say that? Because the EPA existed at the time and didn’t do what you wanted. Indeed, although the EPA at first resisted the nonsense, it got on board and that’s how we got the Superfund, which has actually slowed down toxic cleanups.
When you advocate having a government agency with power, you need to specify what incentives the people in the agency will have to do the right thing. Otherwise, all you are doing is praying.

Mike W writes:

@ David R. Henderson,
So you're saying government agencies should be better. No argument here. But a disinterested third party...the EPA...seems better than nothing. Isn't the libertarian alternative merely "nothing"?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mike W,
So you're saying government agencies should be better. No argument here.
No. I’m saying that you’re saying government agencies should be better. And that gets you nowhere.
I’m also saying that you used the failure of the local government to argue for an EPA, despite the fact that we had an EPA and it piled on to make things worse. So in this case, the EPA was not better than nothing. In fact, the problem was caused by the local government using eminent domain. So get rid of that. That’s not nothing. That’s something. And it’s entirely libertarian.

mm writes:

had a relative in the chemical industry who was familiar with aspects of the case at the time it hit the news & he stated that Hooker Chemical had explicitly warned the school board to NEVER develop the property

Mike W writes:

@ David R. Henderson
you used the failure of the local government to argue for an EPA, despite the fact that we had an EPA and it piled on to make things worse.

I don't think we had an EPA at the time of the transfer of the land to the school district. The EPA was created after the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. That a government agency will sometimes make a situation worse does not seem to me to be sufficient reason to throw out the baby...

And if there were no pressure from eminent domain for Hooker to transfer the property, would the company have retained it in perpetuity? Or would the land's history have been forgotten after the company was sold to Occidental Petroleum?

I don't know that the EPA would prevent the land's future use but, without a disinterested third party, it seems that the incentives would be pretty strong for the company and the local government to eventually shift the costs of the toxic chemicals onto the public.

I don't mean to be argumentative, I'm trying to understand the argument for a libertarian alternative.

James Morris writes:

I toured The Hooker Chemical facility on an Explorer Scout trip in 1958 and still remember the stench of the open creeks and ponds of caustic soda and other chemicals running all over the property. The fact that this site was later developed for general usage is a horrific example of why the system was and remains broken.

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