Big Green Crimes — The End of Water?

Big Green Crimes — The End of Water?

Michael J. Lynch

Whether or not we are willing to admit it, the world is hurling to its demise much more rapidly than we would like to admit. This is due, in large part, to our modern state of ignorance about the state of the environment and the fact that, as Bill McKibben wrote in The End of Nature, that we have spoiled nature. And while we were spoiling nature with what appeared to each of us tiny little acts, we never saw the big picture, never connected all the “little” incidents of pollution together, never imaged the mass of what we were doing. As McKibben noted, “We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never though we really could: it was too big and too old; its forces – the wind, the rain the sun – were too strong, too elemental” (1988:41). But, we were wrong. We could wreck nature, and we have. The signs are everywhere. The decline of species of various types, rampant deforestation, wetlands destruction, urban and suburban sprawl, the proliferation of toxic waste sites and land-fill, extensive air, land and water pollution, and the grandest force of all, global warming.

In this entry, I will focus on one of the many environmental issues that face the citizens of the world; one of the issues criminologists, still sleeping their academic slumbers in which the nightmares of street crime and justice run amuck as the real monsters, have failed to address or appreciate – water pollution.

In recent months, the news about water pollution has not been good. The pollution of public drinking water supplies in the US is so widespread that serious concerns have been raised about water supplies at public schools. While only 2% of public schools were found to have water that violated federal safety standards in a recent study, the violations are serious to the extent that they tend to be concentrated in certain locations or involve highly toxic chemicals such as lead and, in rural areas, pesticides. These forms of pollution are especially serious for children because of the effects of pollutants on development and because dosages are more concentrated for children compared to adults who tend to be the standards for scientific standards.

On a broader scale, global warming is introducing new hazards to water supplies world wide – increased water acidity. Recent research has revealed that the primary cause of global warming, carbon dioxide pollution, is also the primary cause of increased water acidity. Carbon dioxide is absorbed from the air by water bodies. In water, carbon dioxide transforms into carbonic acid, elevating the pH of waterways. The colder a body of water, the more carbon dioxide it can absorb. Thus, the biggest problem is acidification of northern salt waters. A recent finding revealed by Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, noted that the process of acidification of the Arctic Ocean is well underway. Gattuso estimated that by 2018 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic – acidic enough to wear away the shells of shellfish thereby disturbing the food chain. By the end of this century, Gattuso estimates that 100% of the Arctic Ocean will become so acid that all forms of life there will be threatened. The fact that the sources of acidification of the Arctic Ocean – pollution produced by humans at factories, power-plants and from automobiles – are physically far removed from the Arctic Ocean is a telling sign of the extent of environmental damage humans are producing.

Regionally, water pollution problems vary. Pennsylvania is currently facing a water quality problem that has surfaced in the Monongahela River which supplies drinking for 350,000 people. As criminologists, we cannot point to any single event that threatens the health of so many people simultaneously. The problem here is that industrial pollution in the river from natural gas and oil operations has turned the water salty. The problem has been linked to the boom in natural gas and oil wells drilled in Pennsylvania in recent years and specifically to the practice of hydraulic drilling or fracturing. Currently, oil and natural gas drilling operations produce 9 million gallons of waste water each day in Pennsylvania, and that volume of waste is expected to double in the next two years, further threatening Pennsylvania’s waterways. A significant concern is that the waste water produced by hydraulic fracturing contains total dissolved solids five times more concentrated than seawater, and laced with cancer causing toxins such as benzene and cadmium. Similar problems related to coal mining have been discovered in West Virginia and Kentucky waterways. While not considered an immediate threat to humans, these conditions do have important immediate effects on fresh waterways.

In Richland County, South Carolina, the Wateree River is currently under assault from seepage from an SCE&G plant where coal ash is stored in  an 80 acre coal ash pond. The pond was recently observed overflowing into the Wateree, contaminating the river with arsenic. Similar situtations exist at coal sludge ponds throughout the country. Some present very serious environmental consequences such as the release of 2.6 million tons of coal sludge in Tennesse last December (2008) — a volume of sludge waste 50 times larger than the oil spill released by the Exxon Valdez.

Mercury contamination is a recurring problem for some waterways in California. The problem here is sometimes a century or more old, though, created by abandon gold mines shaft where mercury was used in hydraulic mining operations to extract gold. For example, 25 abandon mines sites drain into California’s Cache Creek watershed. While the site has been scheduled for clean up since 1988, little has been done to alleviate the situation.

Water pollution problems still plague some of America’s largest waterways decades after they were first discovered. These waterways include the Great Lakes, the Hudson River and the Chesapeake and Delaware River basins. A recent study of the Christina River Basin, a 565 square mile area off the Delaware River, found elevated levels of PCBs, pesticides and dioxin in fish. The water from this region supplies drinking water to 60% of Delaware’s population and even to residents in Pennsylvania, some 600,000 people who are victimized daily by pollutants in their water supplies. In a year, and counting one day’s exposure as a victimization (as opposed to counting each individual ingestion of water as a victimization which would increase the figure reported here several fold), that amounts to 219,000,000 annual victimizations or nearly 9 times the number of criminal victimizations estimated to occur in the entire US during a year by the National Crime Victims Survey.

Water pollution hazards such as those described above are often regulated by both federal and state environmental laws, meaning that the harms that result are crimes – perhaps not always criminal harms, as the those who apply these laws have leeway both in how these laws define harms and how law is applied (civilly, administratively or criminally). Despite their impacts, these crimes are rarely the subject of criminological investigations though they cause much more harm – deteriorate human and non-human species health, illnesses and deaths, sprawling damage to eco-systems – than street crime does or could. Perhaps it is time that criminologists took environmental harms and the damage they cause seriously, spending more time identifying the victims and perpetrators of these crimes. Doing so would draw attention to the serious forms of environmental victimization people unwittingly experience each day and perhaps help change attitudes about such offenses and their serious threat to the future of the planet.