US small town pollution case is “universal story”

The tale of a New Jersey cancer town shows how the US and China struggle with similar institutional failures, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Dan Fagin tells chinadialogue

Corinne Purtill (CP): An interesting revelation in your book, Toms River, is how much work the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entrusts to polluters themselves. Do regulatory agencies protect us as well as we think they do?

Dan Fagin (DF): I think the answer to that is no. People carry a few big misunderstandings about the EPA. They think of the agency as a white coat agency, an agency that conducts a lot of tests. It’s not. That work is almost entirely done by what’s known as the “regulated community” – emitters themselves and the labs that they hire.

That’s the way we do things in the US, because we do not invest in public sectors nearly as much as I think we should. The EPA’s budget in inflation-adjusted dollars is as low or lower than it was in the 1970s.

The second big misunderstanding people have about the EPA is that they think of it as a big oppressive force, as some kind of super police. Anybody who’s ever had dealings with the EPA knows how silly that is. Basically, the nature of the EPA is you’ve got a relatively small number of people doing a massive amount of work and trying to do the best they can, but not doing it very well. The EPA is basically a paper agency. It’s not the fault of the agency itself, it’s the fault of the policymakers, who have given it too much to do and with too little budget.

CP: How does this compare with environmental protection elsewhere?

DF: Some northern European nations do a significantly better job than the US does funding their regulatory sectors. They’re not afflicted with the political paralysis we have here in the US. They’re much more nimble with regulations that reflect the current science.

Here in the US, we’re working off statutes that are 40 years old.  Our laws were written in a parts per thousand era, and now we’re living in a parts per trillion era. Not only are we failing to regulate risks that ought to be regulated, but we’re regulating them in a dumb, inefficient and needlessly expensive way.

In that sense, the developing world has a potential opportunity to get this right in a way we really haven’t. The first step is to develop an environmental consciousness. I certainly see multiple occasions of that happening in China. There’s no doubt that Chinese people are, very appropriately, recognising what’s happening around them, and they don’t like it.

CP: What were your impressions of China when you visited in 2007?

DF: I was struck by the depth of concern I saw about environmental health. I was concerned about the kind of exposures I saw on the ground and what I saw as a head-in-the-sand attitude by local, regional and national government – not really coming to grips with the risks of industrialisation. Based on what I’ve read, the [contamination] problem has grown since then, but the determination among people in China to make things better has also grown.

CP: What comparisons can you make between China today and the US half a century ago?

CF: There are some parallels but also some important contrasts. Certainly, the thirst for economic development and an improved standard of living, at least as measured in the short run, was crucial in Toms River. I see that in China as well. That’s a very human story: that rapid industrialisation brings tremendous long term costs, but it also brings short term benefits.

There’s an important difference, though: the existence of the Internet. Even in an authoritarian state like China, the ability to share information is ubiquitous. That has huge advantages. It means that it is a little bit easier to learn from past experience. It’s difficult for state-controlled media to write about [issues like cancer villages], but individual bloggers are not as constrained and are able to do really important work.

CP: Have you observed changes in the government’s response to the environmental crisis?

DF: The first, absolutely crucial step is to recognise that there’s a problem. I do think the national government is past the denial stage. This problem is way too big to pretend it doesn’t exist. From what I’ve read, that message has not trickled down to the provincial and local governments, which are very much operating under the old system where advancement in the party is determined by production goals and achieving rapid growth. Looking at the costs of industrialisation as well as benefits doesn’t appear to have really infiltrated the incentives system that seems to operate in the Communist party. But at least there is public acknowledgement.

CP: What most concerns you about our global environmental future?

DF: The issue of toxics is going to be tied directly to energy. It’s a tremendous area of concern to me that the same errors we made with toxics we’re now making with anthropogenic global warming. We should all recognise the parallels here: the same trade off of short term growth for long term risk that I outline in Toms River. We’re having the same problem of being unable to look at the long-term consequences when it comes to decarbonising our energy system.

It is inevitable that we are going to have to make this wrenching transition away from fossil fuel. We’re going to face extreme dislocation, in both the developing and developed worlds. It is going to affect human health in very profound ways. Fossil energy  is the root of most of the synthetic molecules that are so problematic today. The longer we wait, the more painful, the more deadly that transformation is going to be when it comes.

CP: What kind of place is Toms River now?

DF: The air and water in Toms River is probably safer than most parts of the urban world because so much attention has been lavished on environmental quality there. Toms River is a perfectly nice place to live. The evidence is pretty clear that there is no longer an unusual number of child cancer cases.

Inevitably, people read this book and assume that this is about a problem that’s there, not a problem that’s here. That is not what I intended at all. I wanted to tell the story of Toms River because I think that it’s a universal story.

Environmental risk is everywhere, and we should react to that not by only looking at the obvious big emitters like factories. We should develop a well-informed sense of what environmental risk is and what we can do about it. In order to do that, we need individuals to be well informed, and even better than that, we need to come up with a smart way of assessing risk collectively and with reduction strategies that are collective in nature. And to do that, we need robust government.