On this day in 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency in Love Canal. It’s an interesting case. The Hooker Chemical Company had buried a whole bunch of toxic waste. But the area was growing so the Niagara Falls City School District forced a land sell in 1953. The company did warn the school about the danger. But the school went ahead and built. The chemicals were released, polluting the local ground water. Housing developments were built without anyone knowing about previous toxic waste and the chemical company and the school district.
I don’t especially blame anyone in this whole thing. Instead, I see this as a good illustration of why we need environmental regulation. Libertarians usually argue that people should be able to pollute their own property, as long as it doesn’t effect anyone else. But the truth is that we don’t know what the future holds. By the time that the pollution is know, the polluter may be dead — or just broke. Things happen, and we know that we can’t just leave all this up to the free market (and eventually courts) to work out.
Regardless, the end result was that hundreds of houses had to be destroyed — thousands of people displaced — lots of health problems. Of course, libertarians specifically use Love Canal to push their screwed up views of property rights. “If only…” they claim. If only the school board had been held accountable… What? There would have been no release of toxic waste?! What about the externalities of Hooker Chemical disposing of waste in a way that didn’t take into account its actual cost? It’s a typical case of libertarians thinking shallowly, because thinking deeply wouldn’t produce the conclusions they desire.