Get The Lead Out

Doug Masson recently shared a news article and a righteous rant.

The shared article was a report on lead contamination in northwest Indiana. It seems we Hoosiers have the nation’s largest source of such contamination–not a distinction to celebrate.

The nation’s largest source of industrial lead pollution is 20 miles down the Lake Michigan shore from Chicago in Indiana, churning more than twice as much of the brain-damaging metal into the air each year as all other factories in the region combined.

The company responsible is ArcerlorMittal (a company I’d never heard of); its Burns Harbor plant is the (ir)responsible emitter. According to the report, the plant has topped the list since 2013.

The continuing coverage of Flint, Michigan’s unsafe water generally includes a recitation of the effects of lead poisoning, and they aren’t pretty. They also aren’t reversible; if a child ingests lead through the water, as in Flint, or from flaking of old paint in run-down houses, or from areas of contaminated ground (we have a number in Indianapolis’ poorer precincts), the damage to that child’s intellectual functioning is life-long.

The referenced “rant” is how Masson describes his frustration–which I share–with conservatives’ constant attack on regulation. Pollution is the poster child for why regulatory activity is an essential function of government. As Doug points out, absent regulation, it will always be cheaper to pollute the air that others breathe or the water that others drink than to dispose of the waste from your manufacturing process in a manner that doesn’t harm others.

Meanwhile, pollution means that the market is getting incomplete information about the cost of (in this case) the steel being produced. They offload some of the costs of their production onto the people suffering brain damage from the lead pollution. Those people are, in effect, subsidizing the cost of production. Because the cost of the pollution is not reflected in the price of the steel, the market gets the signal that this form of production is more efficient than it really is. Polluters are rewarded and, consequently, environmentally sound production processes are put at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t force nearby residents to subsidize the process by breathing in the tainted air.

Economists call pollutants generated by manufacturing “externalities,” and note that failing to account for them in the cost of goods being produced distorts the market and–as Doug notes–puts manufacturers who are properly disposing of their pollutants at a pricing disadvantage.

Are some regulations onerous and unnecessarily broad? Sure. Are others inadequate? Absolutely. Regulatory activity by its very nature must be calibrated–ideally, rules governing commercial enterprises should be only as restrictive as necessary to the achievement of the desired result.

When we discuss government regulatory activity in my classes, I always emphasize the inadequacy of the usual political and ideological “either/or” formulations–as I tell my students, the need for and adequacy of any particular regulation will always be what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.” Issuing a wholesale assault on “regulation” writ large makes no more sense than advocating the elimination of “laws” because some laws are over-broad or unnecessary.

One of the most frustrating elements of our current impoverished and dishonest political discourse is the over-simplification of issues that are complex and/or nuanced. Too much of our public debate is conducted via bumper-sticker slogans and easy, inaccurate generalizations. When it comes to protecting the environment, those formulations are not only inaccurate, they are dangerously misleading.

Most Americans want the air they breathe to be clean, the water they drink to be safe, the playground soil to be free of harmful contaminants. It would be wonderful if we could rely upon the ethics of manufacturers to ensure the safety of our environment, but we can’t. We have no choice but to rely upon the government to promulgate and enforce rules against despoiling our air and water.

Of all the many obscenities being perpetrated by the Trump administration, watching the EPA play “footsie” with favored corporate polluters while refusing to discharge its most basic responsibility–to safeguard the environment– may be the worst.


  1. Bringing this to light shows how each regulation must be thoroughly thought thru before we simply discard it due to the overreach or duplication it MAY have in the process of regulatory oversight.
    For instance do you want to do away with the regualation that makes banks pay toward higher rates on credit cards first.

  2. “The EPA’s changes to the coal ash rule set Indiana up for more groundwater contamination, a reduction in the number of contaminated sites that get cleaned up, slower cleanups for those that do, and a higher risk of coal ash spills. The administration in Washington is promoting these changes as increased flexibility for the states, but prior to the first coal ash rule in 2015 the states had 100% flexibility and in Indiana that was disastrous.”

    “Decades of regulatory inaction on coal ash disposal has left Indiana with a toxic legacy of serious groundwater contamination – with unsafe levels of arsenic, lead, boron, and radium, among other contaminants — confirmed at fifteen disposal sites in Indiana located on the shores of the White River, the Wabash River, Kankakee River, the Ohio River and Lake Michigan. It is simply negligent for the EPA to roll back the long-overdue federal coal ash standards that the agency adopted in 2015. This will result in this pollution being left in place to continue contaminating our waterways and drinking water sources for many years to come.”

    The information above was copied and pasted from the Indiana Environmental Council’s report on July 18, 2018, under the heading “EPA weakens coal ash rule”.

    “It seems we Hoosiers have the nation’s largest source of such contamination–not a distinction to celebrate.” Please note line 2 of paragraph 2 above that lead is included in the (partial) list of pollutants being dumped into our waterways throughout the state. The effects of lead on children’s “intellectual functioning” should be reflected in overall test grade levels in schools; much of the blame for the increasing number of low scores can be placed on Indiana’s education system, but obviously not all blame can or should be on the declining education system. These effects of lead and all other contaminants released into the air we breathe and dumped into our waterways and the ground to make its way into our ground water system, are the cause of serious, life-and-death, health issues. Health issues which can be ignored by the health care system as Trump, et al, continue to lower the health care standards and allow health care costs to soar.

    We have been finally, after decades of EPA awareness, seeing more and more of the Johnson County Indiana “childhood cancer cluster” causes in the news but the EPA and Indiana Environmental Council appear to have no required actions to follow to alleviate – or even deeply investigate – hazardous environmental issues throughout the state of Indiana…or any other state. Rather than corporations continuing (or considering) to follow the few remaining regulations; they are in a wait-and-see mode to learn what they do NOT have to do to cease polluting or to clean up current polluted areas.

    “Honest To Goodness, Indiana” I ask WTF?

  3. Come on Sheila, one doesn’t have to venture all the way to Washington and look at Trump’s (really Pence and his keepers, the Koch brothers) to grasp how externalities in economics play out in our society.

    The World Health Organization repeatedly says that the fossil fuel industry is the most highly subsidized sector receiving hundreds of billions in subsidies because they are NOT held accountable for the damage they cause to our environment and public health.

    I would say the real costs are trillions but then again, how can you put a price on human life or the environment?

    Hoosiers are treated as casualties of industry– someone has decided that our environment and health must be sacrificed to feed the world and provide energy for the Midwest. Steel is just another industry and when you consider the composition of Gary and Flint, one cannot speak about the connection between externalities and racism.

    Same with our coal ash piles. I bet there aren’t any piles in Carmel, Fishers or Greenwood.

    Therefore, “It’s no big deal.” “Why sweat the small stuff?”

    Once again, the GOP isn’t the only group collecting monies from industry and playing games with our “regulatory bodies.”

    Guess who else has been given a HUGE pass?

    Big Pharma.

    The water treatment facilities in most major cities can take out the solids, but not the pharmaceutical byproducts we pass along in mass quantities every single day. And guess who our Republican governors place at the helm of cleaning up our water?

    Eli Lilly.

    Just mentioning their name causes politicians from the left and right to salute and then assume their begging position.

    If our regulatory bodies were truly serving the public, do you think we’d have all these dangerous external costs and damage to deal with? The foxes are guarding the hens.

    The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is the most corrupted entity in Indiana and our Chamber runs around yelling jobs, jobs, jobs. Hoosiers fold every single time.

    And once again, the other entity charged with serving the people to hold those in power accountable…the free press…has been marginalized and censored. What we get is homogenized entertainment packaged for 5th graders.

  4. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires that a cost estimate be made for any activities that may detract from environmental quality. And the estimates are supposed to include any potential problems. But determining the “social cost” of health effects is not as easy as determining the cost of “scrubbers” on smokestacks, so projects often are approved on the basis of “made-up” figures about health.

  5. “Most Americans want the air they breathe to be clean, the water they drink to be safe, the playground soil to be free of harmful contaminants.” The real problem is in this sentence. Most Americans ONLY care about the air THEY breathe, the water THEY drink etc. We don’t seem to care very much about the water the children of Flint drink, or the air the children of Beijing breathe.

    Southwest Florida is a great example of that. We are currently coming to grips with the effects of ground water runoff in our river and its attendant canals. So far, no one has mentioned the fact that it costs money to clean up the blue-green algae and the red tide from the water. We are relying on state and federal grants for clean-up efforts. So far, no one has mentioned that it will take years of good strong regulation to make this right. We just expect it will happen and we won’t be negatively impacted by any of the effort to clean our water and make the beach air breathable.

    And, you know what? We might be right. There are enough big money conservatives here that government might just make it happen for us. Too bad about Flint. Wait a year or so, then come visit our pristine beaches and breathe our fresh, clean air. You will have paid for it.

  6. Todd; the issue for today on the blog is the EPA and “Get The Lead Out”. Please stay with us here; we leave no stone unturned and do cover the other issues you listed. Adding issues to the list is like channel surfing; you miss the finer points of the program.

  7. One could now point out that taking credit for the lowest unemployment in decades while simultaneously changing environmental plolicies that are job-killing is another demonstration of the incoherent politics we are forced to endure.
    The same for a tax cut to increase jobs at a time when a tax increase could have generated revenues that could have supported environmental cleanups and infrastructure improvements. And voters keep believing the lies.

  8. One of my pet peeves and an occasional blogging target was and is that Republicans even before Trump were inclined to take a machete to rules and regs instead of a scalpel. To be sure, some rules and regs are obsolete and all are subject to careful adjustment day to day due to technological advancement, cost control, environmental constraints etc., but to decide to simply come up with programs a la Trump that we are going to cut, say, 50 percent of the rules and regs governing an agency without regard to the need to carefully evaluate such changes by technicians and not politicians makes no sense, especially when the politicians are bought and paid for by the particular industry seeking machete wielding.
    Rules and regs in specific instances were adopted at one time and presumably were felt necessary at the time to control or advance the activities covered (though even this is arguable with all the lobbyists for the special interests lurking in congressional hallways, checks in hand), but in sum just to throw 50 percent of them down the memory hole as a matter of arithmetic is irrational. Ideally, rules and regs are apolitical and are rather matters of good government and the public good in fleshing out statutory intent etc., but that’s an ideal that’s just that, an ideal and not reality in this era of Big Money, Kochs, Mercers, Trumps, Citizens United et al.

    I am familiar with the term externality (or roughly speaking, unintended consequence or unexpected outcome) and am beginning to wonder if putting lead in children’s brains qualifies to be called an “externality” when research conclusively shows that industries in South Chicago and Lake County in Indiana are continuing to poison us (and not just children). An unintended or unexpected situation is hardly an externality when the results are known – they are simply carrying on activities that the rest of us are paying for in the name of competition with foreign firms and Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! etc. when the truth is that they are passing on the costs to the health of the unwary victims and to the rest of us due to increased costs to our healthcare system.

    (Truth – I am an honorary member of the United Steelworkers of America Union and just recently went past the facility Sheila refers to in her blog today.) Union workers are interested in keeping their jobs in this rapidly automating industry, which is understandable, but at what costs to the greater society and how do you factor such costs into their employers’ ledgers? I sometimes think the Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! chants are a cover for externalities both real and feigned and haven’t seen any hedge fund managers and CEOs who are employing such framing while carrying signs in their facility’s parking lots demanding higher wages and benefits for their employees.

    I don’t pretend to have an answer about how to factor externalities into costs but I do have an answer on the issue of using arithmetic over reason in taking a machete to rules and regs. Don’t do it – use a scalpel (and hopefully, in disinterested fashion with the common good rather than a lobbyist’s check in mind).

  9. Todd @ 7:50 am, good comments. There is as you point out more than just one company, like ArcerlorMittal, that contributes to a polluted Indiana. As long as Corporatism exists, coupled with their ability to buy off the political system with campaign donations these various front groups have a powerful influence.

    For instance: When Fossil Fuel Money Talks, the DNC Listens >> The executive committee of the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution last week stating that the party “gratefully acknowledges and will continue to welcome” political contributions from workers in the energy industry and their “employers’ political action committees.” Or, more simply, the DNC will continue to accept donations from companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Peabody Coal that are systematically burning down the planet. <<

    I witnessed Externalities when I worked in a steel mill in South Chicago back in the late 1960's and early 1970's. The mill pumped it's waste water directly into the Calumet River and was clearly visible. The toxic waste is still there, lurking in the sediments.

    There is another term – Risk Assessment or Cost Benefit Analysis. A price tag is placed on a human life and the cost of a regulation is weighed against a human life.

    Corporate America like to separate Externalities, Risk Assessment or Cost Benefit Analysis.

    Coal is as good an example as any. There is the health cost to miner in the form of Black Lung, including the medical costs, and future disability payments. The family of the miner is left with out a bread winner. The extraction process results in toxic chemicals released into the environment, such as run off into streams. The combustion process releases toxins into the air. The coal ash needs to be disposed of. Coal is considered cheap. because all the costs of it are never totaled up or the damage done is difficult to assess. How do place a value on a polluted stream or the aquifer??

  10. Gerald; “One of my pet peeves and an occasional blogging target was and is that Republicans even before Trump were inclined to take a machete to rules and regs instead of a scalpel.” Let us not forget that Bill Clinton, in 1999, took his own machete to bank regulations by repealing in total what was left of the Glass-Steagall Act.

    New evidence of the lack of bank regulations appeared in my mailbox the past two weeks. One family member who is named on one of my CDs “when I go” doesn’t pay bills except on occasion (she somehow continues to get credit to keep spending). PNC bank mailed a letter directly to her at my address; I opened it thinking it was connected to my CD but it was a pre-approved loan for a few thousand dollars. As she is very ill I checked with her daughter to ask if her mother had applied for a loan; she had not but her daughter found 12-14 letters pre-approving her for loans while searching through her mail. Not repaying is a tax write-off as a loss for banks. This was an old ploy to get people to spend money they didn’t have; and at the time those pre-approved loans were being issued, many people received unsolicited credit cards in the mail, they only had to sign the back of the card and head to the malls. We all know what this led to.

    Then I received a notice regarding my one credit card; fees to transfer other balances to my card and for cash withdrawals (I never use either option) is being raised again. If I refuse to accept the increase they will cancel my credit card. Mine is used primarily for repairs and other emergencies so it would be a loss for me and to many others in my financial position.

    Trump’s deregulation is aimed at keeping and making money for corporations while bleeding the public dry; this includes the EPA deregulations and increasing and adding new taxes in the many areas it will hit, adding to our personal debt levels. Regulations for corporations are as vital as criminal laws to protect the public; they were part of government of the people, by the people and for the people and are more needed today than since the Great Depression which led to enacting the Glass-Steagall Act to protect the public from big banks.

  11. Once again, bravo Todd!
    Thank you for summing it up so succinctly and not leaving any of the culprits put human life and health far, far beyond their profit margins globally. It is an obscenity anyway one looks at it. So as the earth continues to warm we will continue to be poisoned as it does and with all these toxic emitters continuing to pump this crud into the atmosphere as the chemical composition of that atmosphere changes with the normal cooling and warming cycles of the earth shot to hell they’re creating a toxic mix that will destroy the entire food chain on this planet. Personally, I would prefer that the earth does not become a dead world just so the ultra rich can continue to count their enormous piles of money. Meanwhile, we have people that are largely uneducated on purpose to what these threats represent supporting the actions of the fossil fuel industries because they are trapped with them being the source of their livelihood. I think that’s called slavery.

  12. Externalities, here in the USA can take the form of Corporate Bankruptcy. Once the costs of clean-up become so great, the polluter can legally escape and evade any monetary consequences by declaring bankruptcy. The Corporate High Command is shielded from being personally responsible.

    Pastor Pence and his family corporation Kiel Bros is a good example. Cleanup of Pence family gas stations cost Indiana more than $20 million.

  13. The founders had a brilliant idea. Let government serve under the consent of the people. Have the governed hire and fire their representation in government. In return give the government broad powers to regulate those things that are at the expense of the people. Those things that interfere with a more perfect Union, Justice, domestic Tranquility, the common defense, the general Welfare, or the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

    Between now and then we have introduced a toxic contaminant to their utopia. Money.

    We can go back to their dream though. Not quickly and easily at all but we can.

    Campaign financing reform. It’s absolutely necessary.

  14. JoAnn – You are right to bring up Bob Rubin, uh, I mean, Clinton in the destruction of Glass-Steagall, one of the great statutes of the New Deal era, and one I hope (with amendment due to intervening events) is reinstated when we retake power. Rubin, uh, I mean Clinton, paid lip service to labor but didn’t do much to protect this sector (see WTO approval for China etc.), thus facilitating multinational corporations to seek out cheap labor etc. Thanks for reminding me that it wasn’t just Republicans who wielded the machete in times gone by.

  15. Tom,

    “Personally, I would prefer that the earth does not become a dead world just so the ultra rich can continue to count their enormous piles of money.”

    Ditto. Let’s keep it simple, and listen more to Todd.

    I’m now going to concentrate on building PEACEnet as my contribution to a better world.

    Vote Blue!

  16. The term “regulations” needs to be replaced in these conversations by the term “government enforced safeguards,” since that is what we are actually talking about in most cases. This is one of the main reasons we have governments in the first place!

  17. You are spot-on Sheila. Before, during, and after kindergarten, most of us learned to clean up our own messes. Big and small polluters refuse and pass on their messes to all the rest of us. It should be illegal.

  18. ArcelorMittal is also the former owner of the Georgetown, SC steel plant which produces heavy duty wire that is turned into nails. For years their abandoned buildings stood on the edge of the downtown area as the most godawful assault on the human eyeball one could imagine. It’s still there, but another company has recently joined the long list of future quitters (Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, known for milking companies of their value then selling them, was a one-time owner) and will try to make a go of it. Each successuve company strives, quite successfully so far, to avoid any costs associated with tearing down this eyesore when the inevitable plant closing occurs. That would cost millions. The city could never afford to remove it, so it’s probably a permanent scar on an otherwise pleasant little town.

    While she hasn’t agreed to distribute it, I’m sending Sheila a parody written by a local professor of Marine Biology, Dan Abel, on the subject of externalities. Called the “True Cost Bistro,” it is amusing and insightful in explaining how externalities work, but doesn’t explore the totality of how pervasive they are in society or how vital they are to the bottom line profits of the Kochs and countless other businesses. Most plastics companies, for instance, could not remain in business if they were required to contribute their fair share to clean up the mess they’ve made of our planet and our oceans.

  19. Ever since Grover Norquist and his “government so small you can drown it in a bathtub” and his ensuing hordes arrived on the scene, few have really even tried to figure out how this kind of thing can promote “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” for anybody — except companies like the one mentioned (not forgetting that companies are people, too, now.)

Comments are closed.