Roughly 165 million gallons of wastewater from the catastrophe at the old Piney Point phosphate plant in Palmetto fouls Tampa Bay. Workers at a Tampa lead smelter have enough lead coursing through their bloodstreams to put them at risk of serious health problems, according to a Times investigation. More than 500 dead manatees in Florida already this year, in many cases apparently starved because their seagrass beds died off in the shadows of blue-green algae blooms. Each tragedy stems from a different, insidious form of pollution, and in each case, the polluter should pay. That’s satisfying to say, but what does it actually mean?
Economists frame these as “externalities,” something that affects other parties but is not reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved. A phosphate company wants to mine and sell fertilizer. The leftover toxic waste — mountains of phosphogypsum stacks (”gyp stacks”) — are a massive externality, a really bad one. Homeowners and the sugar industry use fertilizers and herbicides, and when they run off into our waterways, they become pollution that can feed algae blooms. That green, weed-free lawn could endanger manatees. Another bad externality.
As for lead, it’s a neurotoxin, and there is no known safe level. A company that recycles the lead in batteries has a moral obligation to ensure the safety of its workers. But how is that morality enforced under the law?
Government has a big role to play in each case. It can do two main things. First, enact and then actually enforce safety regulations that keep pollution out of waterways and our bloodstreams. Second, put a price on externalities.
There is no mystery that gyp stacks are dangerous. The generations-long history makes that clear. So why is the inevitable price of dealing with the disastrous pollution — and potential walls of water if a big spoil pond breaches — not fully factored into the price of producing fertilizer? It shouldn’t be up to later generations to have to bear the burden.
Same for fertilizer and pesticide run-off. We know the environmental damage they can cause. Why is that externality not priced in to the manufacture and sale?
As for a lead smelter, it shouldn’t have taken a Times investigation and a scathing letter from U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist to bring inspectors to the Gopher Resource factory in Tampa. But if batteries that use lead were priced to fully include the dangerous externality of dealing with the pollution from their afterlife, perhaps regulatory agencies would have enough money to actually police the factories and do their job.
We are living with some devastating externalities right here, right now in the Tampa Bay area, and it looks as if we are the ones who will pay the price, in our pocketbooks, in the health of our waters and in the well-being of workers who toil in dangerous conditions. It doesn’t have to be this way. Someone always pays for pollution. Shouldn’t it be the polluters?
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.