Environmental Dollar Values

September 21, 1991

Some business-backed economists have discovered it costs real money to clean up the nation's land, waterways and air. A New York Times report says they now question "spending a staggering $300 billion to $700 billion to restore waste sites to pristine condition." Human health could be protected for far less money, the economists say, by isolating the worst dangers, cleaning up 70 percent of the residues and burying the rest.

A recent article in the magazine Science, by researchers for another economist group, contends the health benefits of cleaning the worst pollutant, ground-level ozone, from the nation's air will fall far short of the costs. Acknowledging that the most polluted air should be scrubbed, the researchers say investing billions to end tobacco smoking, control radon gas and provide better prenatal and infant care would be more cost-effective.

In its own analysis, the Environmental Protection Agency says Superfund cleanups will cost an average $30 million per site. To date, only 64 of 1,200 identified Superfund sites have been scrubbed, for $7.5 billion worth of work.

But there is something more to be desired in all this economic analysis. First is a recognition that billions have already been spent dirtying up the environment. Second is that the companies which profited by spreading all that pollution, and their economic successors, cannot simply decide it's too costly to clean it up. And as the New Jersey Supreme Court said in a pollution-related land dispute, "cost is not invariably equated with value."

The definition of "reasonable risk" varies according to who is supposed to accept it. Moreover, the need to clean the environment goes beyond protecting human health. Humans have been fouling the Earth's biosphere, destroying habitats and killing off plant and animal species since the Industrial Revolution began. What is the cost of the extinction of an organism that existed since before Australopithicus first used tools? How do you put a dollar value on a wildflower when its genes prove capable of producing exploitable pharmaceuticals?

The heritage of diversity we pass on to our children's children will be irreparably diminished by the destruction which continues today. That is the real reason for scrubbing the environment as clean as we can get it. We'll never be able to put a price tag on what has been lost until the day we or our descendants need it most.

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