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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.


Environmental Crimes

Environmental Crimes

Michael J. Lynch

The public has been convinced that the biggest threat to their health and well being is terrorism. This has legitimized a massive military build up designed to intervene in Middle Eastern nations. The war on terrorism and terrorist (WOTT) has helped drown out increasing bad news about the health of the world’s environment (from global warming to pollution and species extinction), and the shrinking supply of oil. At the same time, the WOTT has provided a means to satisfy the oil supply crises looming in the US.

These are issues students need to confront and which critical criminologists have largely ignored. To be sure, these topics have been the subject of critical research that takes globalization as a central concern, especially in relation to state crimes (e.g., the work of Kramer, Michalowski, Kauzlarich). However, the majority of critical criminology has become bogged down in issues of local identity and communicative expressions, which are symptoms of the extreme forms of alienation engendered by modern societies. The tendency to take these forms of alienation as an expression of real and meaningful developments in human consciousness has allowed much contemporary critical criminology to dissolve into fractured, discontinuous, isolated postmodern critiques that facilitate individualism rather than the unification of people with similar interests. These interests, for example, include the fight against environmental contamination (and for environmental justice), global warming, and the end of oil.

Important Links

See below for links you and your students can employ to investigate a variety of issues related to the environmental health of the world, looming crises, and the general decline in the health of the world eco-system.

The End of Oil

The U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of oil. The US consumes 25% of the oil produced in the world while its citizens comprise only 5% of the world’s population. To put it bluntly, US society is an energy hog.

Since the mid-1950s, geologists have used world oil reserve and consumption data to estimate the number of years left in the world oil supply. The term “peak oil” or “Hubbert’s peak” is apply to the point in time where one half of an oil supply has been used. In the US, peak oil production occurred in 1973. Since then, US production of oil has declined because of a shrinking natural supply. This has caused the US to rely more heavily on imported oil. At the same time, the US has done virtually nothing to deal with the fact that its oil supply has diminished, and continual increasing demand for oil. This problem has been expanded by realization that the world oil supply has now peaked. At current levels of use, it is estimated that there are three to four decades of oil remaining in the world.

Use the following links and other materials to investigate the implications of the end of oil.

Global Warming and the Greenhouse Effect

Is the world warming up? Most scientists agree that it is. What’s more, most agree that the cause of global warming is human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.


The world’s climate and ecological situation is also tied to the health of the world’s rainforests. The health of natural species is also connected to the disappearance of rainforests. Learn about rainforests using these links.

Environmental Hazards, Chemical Data and Databases, and Health Issues

There are hazardous waste sites and toxic hazards found all across the US which threaten the health and well-being of US citizens. Much of this data is centralized on the US EPA website. In addition to the EPA, each state has its own department of environmental protections. Links to these sites may be found in R.G. Burns and M. J. Lynch, 2004, Environmental Crime: A Sourcebook. NY: LFB Scholarly. Discover more about these using the following links.

To make use of these data, it is also necessary to understand the health consequences of exposure to environmental toxins. A number of the links below direct you to on-line information related to health topics such as exposure levels, cancer rates and causes, and other relevant disease information.