The old saying, “There’s no sense crying over spilt milk” could apply to Chicago’s recent contamination problems. However, spilt milk can be cleaned up with a towel; solvents are considerably more difficult.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for a clean environment. I’m also for a free market. But in the free market of the last century, many businesses took their chances with sloppy housekeeping.
Every business owner should be a responsible citizen and comply with regulations — even to the tune of paying for their own past mistakes. However, it isn’t fair for businesses that did protect the environment or cleaned up their own mistakes to finance the mistakes of others.
One Sunday last summer, the Chicago Tribune led with the story, “Cleaners leave a toxic legacy.” “Despite cleanup efforts, chemicals still taint hundreds of sites,” reporter Michael Hawthorne wrote. That statement can’t be denied.
The article featured an online database for consumers to look up their addresses to see if there is a contaminated site near them. Our plant wasn’t on it, because we completed a cleanup years ago using our own hard-earned money.
The article also pointed out that former Governor Rod Blagojevich and state legislators took $2 million from Illinois’ Drycleaners Environmental Response Trust Fund (DERTF) to balance the state budget. The public should be upset that a contaminated site may lie next door, and the state decided that other projects were more important.
One such project is a third airport south of Chicago that politicians have been pushing for years. The 2009 state budget dedicated $110 million to this white elephant, trying to purchase properties like my farm to lay the groundwork for its construction.
Drycleaners helped launch DERTF to alleviate the financial hardships a cleanup can bring. But it now seems to me like the fund only protects errant operators from their responsibilities. The time has come to let the burden rest upon the owners of mismanaged sites, not on those who have long maintained good management practices.
Many sites have been cleared on paper, but where will a shovel need to be used? Who will be responsible? When we cleaned up our site, we suspect that some dump trucks took the soil somewhere other than the licensed facility specified in our paperwork. But no one can say, and we have the paperwork to prove that we did what was necessary.
A companion article in the Tribune entitled, “State proposal could lead to tougher cleanup rules” quoted the acting chief of the Illinois EPA’s Bureau of Land, Gary King. “The good news is that there are relatively easy and inexpensive ways to remediate.”
That’s exactly what some cleaners opposed to establishing a cleanup fund said years ago. Each cleaner could have purchased soil-extraction equipment that was and is still available; over time, each site would have been well on its way to reducing contamination. But the authorities said that would not be a possibility.
Now Illinois is broke like so many other states, and the fund has very little money to perform cleanups. DERTF administrator Patrick Eriksen should be on the governor’s doorstep every morning, asking for a piece of capital expenditures or tapping into the newly signed, $3 billion federal program funding ‘green’ projects.
Government and business should stop crying over spills that happened years ago by addressing them right now, and the big bailout checks can help small businesses deal with the issue. Then, we should lean on compliance programs and inspections to ensure that a fund is never needed again.
Combining cleanup funds, independent business capital and federal stimulus money would be welcomed by sites with longstanding contamination issues. We could then shutter the cleanup funds and rely on more recent compliance programs and new technologies to keep our industry clean now and into the future.