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Any kind of metal is out – mining and smelting and all that carbon energy it takes to bend and form the stuff, you know. Plastic is out, too – made from oil. Can’t be wood – logging and habitat disruption and whatnot. Hemp, maybe – seems to be pretty versatile stuff and it could be grown locally. Nope, illegal. They might end up having to knit the thing.
And speaking of iron mining, the Mayor just authorized another dumping of raw sewage into the Kinnickinnic River after a hard rain just two days before his victory in the recall primary.
What the heck does dumping 16,250 gallons of poop water into the River K have to do with iron mining, you might ask. Well, if you recall it was Barrett’s Democrats, led by urban legislators, who killed off the Mining Bill, putting the ki-bosh on thousands of jobs across the state and dashing the hopes of economic revitalization any time soon in Iron County.
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Their cover story was that their votes protected us from the unthinkable devastation that could be caused if a hard rain might wash some dirt into the streams that feed the Bad River. Having grown up in that neck of the woods and drunk from those streams while hard rains pummeled the nearby slag heaps, I don’t fear the dirt as much as I do urban legislators.
And although it has been nearly 40 years since I took an Ecology course, I’m pretty sure that dirt getting rained on is not pollution. On the other hand, I am 100% certain that a union guy working for the city yanking a valve handle open to dump tens of thousands of government poo juice into a river on purpose – is.
Where is the outrage? Where are the environmentalists? Where are the Native Americans? Where are the Mother Earth people? The Sierra Club? The college students? This was no accident; the guy followed a procedure. If the letterhead on that authorization said Koch Industries, President Obama would have called the river to express his condolences.
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But because it says Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewage District (MMSD), that makes it ok, I guess. In a coincidence of awful timing, MMSD’s Executive Director was given an award for environmental stewardship from UW-Madison just one day after Sunday’s big flush. Very awkward – like trying to dance to a Rush song.
This is not an anomaly. The majority of Superfund priority sites in Wisconsin are government properties. The EPA itself is being sued over dumping of sediment from a government reservoir into the Potomac River. There is no corporation which has come remotely close to matching MMSD’s record of intentional dumping into waterways in recent times.
Billions of gallons of untreated sewage water have been dumped during Mayor Barrett’s eight years in office – billions. He did not invent the problem of Milwaukee’s sewage, but he ran his first campaign on a promise to fix it. One of his ads attacked his opponent’s foot-dragging, demanding to know why, “after more than 60 days in office, why Marvin Pratt hasn’t even started to get these things done.”
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The problem of pollution – air, land, water – is often thrown back in the libertarian’s face when we advocate for private property rights. Air pollution is tricky, but the land and water issues are not. The answer to the tragedy of the commons is to sell all public lands – including every single foot of waterfront property – and then strictly enforce private property rights though the courts.
Why? Because no one intentionally dumps toxic goo on their own property – that destroys its value. And no one dumps toxic goo on their neighbor’s property, at least not as long as the 2nd amendment remains in force. Proceeds from the sale of government land would replenish state trust funds that were raided by previous administrations.
Adding more property to the tax base would reduce local tax rates and increase local school funding, which in turn would allow for the repeal of the statewide school funding formula that has screwed our northern districts for years now. I don’t think any of those are bad things, but I realize that reasonable people can disagree.
If the action of one property holder diminishes the value of another – through polluting a waterway, for example – the injured property owner would have recourse through the courts to be compensated for the loss. No caps, no limits, no exemptions provided by government as patronage favors.
Property owners who wish to develop their property could also purchase indemnification from their neighbors for a price, so that the prospect of lawsuits and courts is eliminated, or at least greatly diminished. A private market would develop quickly to establish proper equilibrium values for insurance, indemnification, and risk. And if you don’t think that country people aren’t shrewd when it comes to land values then you need to start hanging out with some farmers.
Here’s how it would work: if I want to build a laboratory to discover the cure for cancer (why does it always have to be factories?) it might be worth it to me to pay all my neighbors to prevent them from suing me over every minor spill on my loading dock. They may want to take a guaranteed $20,000 up front rather than wait for a chance to burn me for $50,000 in a lawsuit that may never come and in which they may not win unless they have actually been harmed economically.
The more environmentally safe I am, the lower my cost will be in either event; thus my pursuit of maximum profit is entirely compatible with being a responsible non-polluting neighbor. And while relying on profit maximization may not be as emotionally satisfying to some people as public pretention, it is far more effective. It was the Great Healer, after all, who just dumped the public’s sewage into the public’s river this week, and just a few blocks from sacred Native American land to boot.
If you think it is impractical to use courts to settle pollution claims, consider that nearly every environmental claim and preemptive challenge goes through the courts now. Did you know that over the 30+ years of the SuperFund program, only 20% of the sites have been cleaned up and adjudicated?
It would not be difficult to set up separate property courts to streamline the process, and cutting out the middleman (government) gives plaintiffs (citizens) more control over their cases and an incentive to settle them efficiently. Bonus: the money collected from polluters would go to the people who were actually harmed by the pollution.
When the state collects a fine or settlement today, those funds do not benefit the parties injured; they flow into general revenues and fund government expenditures totally unrelated to the offense. Why should some foundry fine up in Ladysmith go towards adding Lasik surgery to the list of covered medical expenses for the spouses and domestic partners of UW professors? How is that environmental justice?
Like so many other things we have been conditioned to believe, government is not the only answer to the problem of pollution; and it is very often the source. And like so many other seemingly intractable problems, individual liberty provides our best answer. That’s why the Founding Fathers bet the ranch on it.
“Moment Of Clarity” is a weekly commentary by Libertarian writer and speaker Tim Nerenz, Ph.D. Visit Tim’s website www.timnerenz.com to find your moment.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey (Creative Commons)
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.