In his best-selling 1971 book “The Closing Circle,” Washington University biologist Barry Commoner introduced the world to the four laws of ecology, simple truths that have since guided much of the environmental movement:
• Everything is connected to everything else.
• Everything must go somewhere.
• Nature knows best.
• There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Mr. Commoner died in 2012 at 95, 42 years after Time magazine dubbed him the “Paul Revere of Ecology.”
Were he still around, we’re confident he’d be appalled (loudly and acerbically, as was his wont) at two potential natural disasters in the St. Louis region — the ongoing subsurface fire at the Bridgeton Landfill and Ameren Missouri’s proposed coal-ash landfill along the banks of the Missouri River. People still haven’t absorbed ecology’s four laws.
First, everything is connected: It is about 50 miles between the Bridgeton Landfill and the Labadie power plant. On the surface, there is little similar about the two environmental disasters, one unfolding, the other impending.
The landfill fire, or “smoldering event” as owner Republic Services prefers to call it, in some ways isn’t that unusual. When you bury trash over 52 acres at a depth of 320 feet over 19 years, chemical reactions will often, over time, generate heat. If the heated material should ever be exposed to just enough oxygen, an intense conflagration could occur.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources says the problem now (aside from pungent odors the landfill sometimes emits) is that it appears the underground fire is heading north toward the adjacent West Lake Landfill. There is buried an unknown amount of radioactive waste created during World War II as the U.S. government was developing the atomic bomb.
Law No. 2: Everything — nuclear waste, trash, the byproduct of coal-burning power plants — must go somewhere. “The Greatest Generation” buried nuclear waste in a landfill in suburban St. Louis because it either didn’t know what a disaster that would become, or, more likely, because it was leaving it for some future generation to deal with.
Similar kick-the-can-down-the-road reasoning is now underway along the banks of the Missouri River near Labadie in Franklin County. Ameren Missouri wants government approval for a coal-ash landfill there. This despite two prominent natural disasters in recent U.S. history — one in Tennessee, the other in North Carolina — where rivers washed coal ash ponds away, polluting drinking water and creating hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
Missouri’s DNR is caught in the middle of both of these decisions.
Its consultants believe that the Bridgeton fire is inching closer to the radioactive waste in West Lake. Some scientists believe the waste itself also is migrating. (Rule No. 3: Nature knows best.). So it has asked Republic to increase its monitoring of the fire. Republic is resisting, noting that the company has spent more than $100 million mitigating a problem created by previous landfill owners who illegally dumped radioactive waste.
Meanwhile, DNR gave the OK for Ameren Missouri to build its coal-ash landfill next to a river that regularly floods, as long as the company follows the still-unapproved Environmental Protection Agency rules on coal-ash. Coincidentally, the company and other electrical utilities are fighting the EPA over the rules.
All of this is about the fourth rule of ecology: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Republic and Ameren’s expensive public relations and lobbying teams tell the public and lawmakers that the alternatives suggested by environmentalists are more expensive. They are absolutely correct. Building a wall to stop the Bridgeton fire from reaching West Lake will cost millions of dollars. Capping the radioactive waste in place at West Lake would cost tens of millions more. Excavating the nuclear waste and safely storing it elsewhere could be a half-billion-dollar proposition.
What big companies tend to want is a generational free lunch. Lobbying and campaign donations are far cheaper than buying lunch.
For instance: The folks at Ameren are smart. They know that the Missouri River will flood, they just don’t know when. They know the way they used to store coal ash in wet ponds wasn’t safe, so they spent more money to develop a dry system where the ash is less likely to seep into groundwater. But the investor-owned monopoly utility — which will pass most of its costs to consumers no matter how it stores the coal ash — can earn its shareholders much higher profits in the next decade or two or three if it doesn’t have to spend money now to store the coal ash a safe distance from the flood plain.
Ultimately, this isn’t a problem for Republic, or for Ameren — it’s a problem for the American consumer.
A 2013 University of Mississippi study found a 200-fold return on shareholder investment for corporate investments in lobbying. For every dollar a company spent on trying to influence the lawmakers who run the DNR or EPA, it earned $200 back.
That’s because most of us don’t want to pay more for our trash pickup. We don’t want to pay more for turning on the lights. We’d rather not think about it, and let the next generation — our children and grandchildren, and theirs after that — pick up the tab. We elect officials — Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat — who tell us what we want to hear: Regulation of coal companies will cost you money.
While Missouri’s politicians, the neighbors of Bridgeton and Labadie, and various corporate flacks argue over what to do with radioactive waste and coal ash, all they’re really doing is haggling over price, and who pays for it, and when. The waste has to go somewhere. So does the coal ash. No serious person truly believes it won’t someday end up in the water, or in the air. Like the people long ago who dumped the radioactive waste in Bridgeton, they’re just trying to pass the problems onto the next generation. Spending the money now hurts too much.
In his 1970 State of the Union address, two weeks before Barry Commoner appeared on the cover of Time magazine, President Richard Nixon talked about the proposal to create the EPA. He asked Americans, and their Congress, whether they were ready to “make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water.”
Three years later, WW II-era nuclear waste was illegally dumped into the West Lake Landfill. Peace with nature still awaits.