Saving us from ourselves: PW special report is a reminder that dramatically tougher environmental regulation is essential for human survival

By: - April 30, 2019 5:00 am
Sludge containing 1,4-Dioxane was used to make compost and fill, destined for gardens, farms and parks. Because of weak EPA and state rules, it’s completely legal. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

It’s easy enough to understand the kind of thinking that goes into ignoring the dire environmental crises that currently afflict our state, nation and planet. Most, if not all, of us fall prey to it every day when we leave our empty homes with the heat and or air conditioning churning away and fire up our fossil fuel burning vehicles in order to idle in a fast food drive-through line to buy a sandwich that features meat produced in a polluting industrial farm.

Out of sight, out of mind; It’s just natural for humans to be drawn to behaviors and products that make their day-to-day lives easier and more comfortable – especially if the negative impacts of those behaviors and products are seemingly far off, indirect and/or years away.

The giant and fatal flaw in this thinking, of course, is that, eventually, the negative impacts of environmental pollution do come home to roost and right now, in the early 21st Century, it’s roosting time. Simply put, humans are steadily drowning in their own effluent and, absent strong and decisive action, life on our planet – at least the kind of life that most of us would recognize and find desirable – is in trouble.

At such a grim moment, it’s clear that we need swift and strong action on at least three fronts.

First, humans need to alter their attitudes and behaviors. It will never be enough by itself to solve the problems we confront, but voluntary change can make an important difference.

Second, we need technological innovation – particularly when it comes to sustainable energy that can slow climate change and fuel the environmental repair and restoration work that is so desperately needed.

Third, and perhaps most important, we need dramatically tougher environmental regulations that will, in effect, save us from ourselves.

If ever there was compelling evidence of the dire need in this third category, it has to be Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg’s special two-part report from last week (click here and here), entitled “Unregulated, untested, unknown.” In the story, Sorg explains how an almost complete lack of state and federal regulation allowed a multi-national plastics manufacturer to ship a dangerous (and likely carcinogenic) chemical in large and dangerous concentrations to a facility in Sampson County that produces “compost, soil builder or fill, destined for gardens and farms, roads, parks and playgrounds.”

Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg

The chemical in question is a nasty “emerging contaminant” known as 1,4-Dioxane and it’s produced in large quantities by DAK Americas, as a byproduct of the plastics production process. A lot of 1,4-Dioxane (disturbingly enough) is simply released by DAK and other manufacturers into various corners of the natural environment like the Cape Fear River.

In the instance in question, however, the pollution release took place in a different way. By all indications, DAK shipped large quantities of 1,4-Dioxane-contaminated sludge to a composting outfit known as McGill Environmental.

A test performed by an independent lab on a sample of the sludge obtained by Policy Watch found “a [1,4-Dioxane] concentration of 20,400 parts per billion, higher than levels the EPA has found at some hazardous waste landfills.”

Clearly, the notion that such a dangerous substance was being combined with other “feedstock” (the industry term for the various substances like peanut shells, poultry manure, hog waste, sheet rock, wood and treated sewage sludge) that goes into making compost – a product we think of as organic and that regularly comes into contact with humans – is of grave concern.

What’s of even greater concern, however, is the startling fact that there really isn’t any meaningful bar to such action. As Sorg reported, 1,4-Dioxane is essentially unregulated despite the compound’s known threats to human health and the environment. Indeed, the story notes that “composters don’t have to test for 1,4-Dioxane or any emerging contaminants. And industrial plants don’t have to disclose to the composters if those compounds are present in the material they’re sending.”

As a practical matter, Sorg reports, DAK and McGill are on what amounts to an honor system when it comes to policing the contents of the compost that ultimately blankets parks and playgrounds across our state.

And while Sorg’s intrepid journalism has apparently prodded North Carolina regulators to investigate the situation (the Department of Environmental Quality says it “has been in contact with DAK Americas”), it seems certain that: a) a lack of regulatory resources and standards would have prevented anything of the kind from ever happening without Sorg’s reporting and, b) there must be scores of similar stories out there of which no one in a position of authority is aware.

The bottom line: when it comes to saving humans from the countless environmental threats they have inflicted on themselves and their fragile and finite planet, it’s clear that no amount of altruistic voluntarism or technological innovation is going to get the job done. Right now, like it or not, we need vastly stronger environmental regulations on the books and dramatically increased numbers of regulators to enforce them.

The evidence could, quite literally, be right there in our own backyards.

Click here and here to read Sorg’s story.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.