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Dr. Bob: Protecting the environment from catastrophes

August 19, 2018

A number of years ago, I was involved in a rather unique case of environmental pollution.

It began with a Boy Scout campout and ended with one of the largest documented cases of water contamination in southeastern Idaho history.

The day had begun with bright sunshine, but by noon it was apparent that it would not last. By 3 p.m., dark clouds had moved in and parts of the mountain I lived on were receiving much needed rain. It soon became obvious that this was no normal storm. The dilemma was: do we cancel our scout campout? After several phone calls and some wrangling, the campout was on.

About 5 p.m. I began the 20-minute drive down the mountain to pick up Scouts. Along the way, there were several areas where water was rushing across the road. I thought this was unusual, but did not give it much further thought until I reached a wide area near the mouth of the canyon. It was here I was stopped by several really old looking tires, several 50-gallon containers and other debris that had washed onto on the road. As I weaved my way through, I wondered what big truck lost its load and just left everything lying there. Arriving at the church, we loaded up and drove up another canyon for our outing.

About three months later, actually in church, I was approached by a person, living at the mouth of the canyon. She told me that several of her trees were suddenly starting to die. In addition her lawn had turned almost white. She said her well water also had some kind of oily substance in it. Inasmuch as she was emphatic that something was wrong, I told her I would take a look.

A few days later, I visited, only to discover that she was right. Most of her trees and her lawn were indeed dead or dying. As I left, I noticed the same old tires and rusting barrels I had dodged on the road a few months before. They had been moved to her backyard.

After testing her well water and the soil around her home, it was found that all contained heavy metals and other hazardous radioactive waste byproducts. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that in the 1940s, the draw just above her home had been an old landfill. Nuclear waste materials, as well as other potentially dangerous chemicals had routinely been deposited in the hill just above her home.

The storm during the Boy Scout outing had washed old leaking barrels containing chemicals, as well as the tires and other debris, out of the hillside and onto the road during the storm. Ultimately, the city, at a cost of several million dollars, was required to extend the city water system up the canyon, which solved the immediate threat.

It’s estimated that there are as many as 350,000 abandoned hazardous waste sites in this country alone. Incidences such as this are occurring nationwide. We are being required to not only deal with new volumes of hazardous wastes, but also to deal with mistakes of the past.

In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In the ’80s, other pieces of legislation such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), dubbed the “Superfund,” were also made into law. Over the past decades, other environmental laws, designed to protect our environment, have been enacted.

Among other things, these acts have defined hazardous waste and placed controls on disposal of such items. Examples include the lining of landfills to capture runoff water and protect the water table, and most notably requiring fuel tanks to be placed above ground rather than being buried where they can rust and leak again, affecting our drinking water. These are just two examples.

Many of our environmental protection measures are either being overturned or weakened. The thought has been that they are overly restrictive and costly. Wise review of environmental policies and laws should occur on a regular basis. We must remember however that pooping in our nest and just burying it for future generations is not a wise course of action.

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