Maddening, but not surprising. Business as usual, really. Earlier this week, Japan’s nuclear power industry announced that the amount of radioactivity which spewed out of the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor was more than twice the original estimate of just 3 months ago. More than twice. The same report also said that the Japanese people should have been told (but were not) that radioactive contamination caused by Fukushima in even faraway neighborhoods was 1,000 times “normal”, far higher than those levels believed to cause long-term health problems. The reason the people were not told is that Japan’s nuclear power industry didn’t trust the radioactivity estimates being generated by their own radioactivity monitoring systems. This episode really takes you inside the mind of the polluter when it comes to protecting the people’s health. You see what happened here? The Fukushima polluters trusted the low “estimates” of the contamination, and so told the public about them, but didn’t trust the high “estimates”, and so kept them a secret. What I’ve learned from suing polluters over the last eleven years is that they ALWAYS underestimate the contamination they have caused, how many people it affects, and how much risk it poses to human health. Here’s my experience: As I said a few blogs ago, in my first case, the polluter’s environmental consultant confidently assured the worried families living near the industrial plant that they were at no risk because the contaminated groundwater had not moved off of plant property……when later testing would show that it had moved ALMOST THREE MILES off of plant property. A few cases later, the people running the leaking landfill were “confident” that dangerous, explosive methane gas had not migrated off the landfill property…..and then testing revealed that the methane had in fact moved THREE-QUARTERS OF A MILE off the property, and had settled underneath hundreds of homes near the landfill. More recently, after the company which owned the polluted plant found chemical contamination in the air inside a home near the plant, it was so confident that this home’s contamination was an isolated incident that it didn’t test other area homes for another three years…..and when it finally did, it found chemical contamination IN EVERY HOME it tested. This is what you learn: polluters always underestimate pollution. Always. So, are these so-called “estimates” really just lies the polluter is telling? Or, are the polluters’ low estimates just honest mistakes made in the heat of the moment….in the rush of trying to get information “out the door”? For those of you inclined to believe that these habitually low estimates are just honest mistakes, ask yourselves this: when was the last time you heard a polluter OVER-estimate the pollution it caused? I can say that the next time I hear this will be the first. If polluters’ incorrect “estimates” are truly honest mistakes, then sometimes the estimate should be low, and sometimes it should be high, right? Isn’t that how honest mistakes work? Not too low ALL THE TIME, right? One justification for underestimates which I hear often –from both polluters and people in government who are supposed to protect the public, but often sound like polluters’ spokespeople– is that “we don’t want to alarm anyone with big, scary pollution numbers”. So, what, you lie to them? You give them phony low estimates, so they won’t worry….because they will have no reason to know that they SHOULD be worried? Especially from government, this kind of behavior is shameful. It’s not the government’s job, or the polluter’s for that matter, to lull people into a false sense of security. It’s to tell them the truth, so that they can protect themselves. So are polluters liars, who purposefully underestimate their pollution? Or are they habitual mistake makers–idiots, really–who just can’t get it right? The real answer is that it doesn’t matter. While we can debate forever whether the liar-polluter or the idiot-polluter is more dangerous to your family’s health, the truth is that they both are very dangerous, and should not be trusted to help you make decisions about how to protect your family.
(1) Get smart. Find out the names of the polluting chemicals. You will usually learn them, as most of our clients have, from a newspaper article or TV story, or from a letter or knock on the door from a government official. You need to know the chemicals’ names, so that you can learn about how they may affect your family’s health. Here’s a good website with commonsense information about the health affects of most chemicals found in polluted water, air and soil. When you learn this information, you will then understand what you must do to minimize, or eliminate altogether, your family’s exposure to the pollution. (2) Get control. You need reliable information in order to protect yourself and your family. And you need it sooner, rather than later. So, resolve that you will take responsibility for getting answers, and not wait for government, or the polluting company, to decide when to give them to you. Government tends to move slowly, and its resources for protecting the environment are usually stretched very thin. The polluting company may wish, in order to save money or its reputation, to down play the extent of the pollution it has caused, or even deny that there is any problem at all. So don’t settle for getting answers, or the problem getting fixed, on their timetable. It’s your family, not theirs, that’s living with the problem. (3) Get noisy. The old adage that “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” applies big time to fixing pollution problems. So you must make some noise – to get answers, get heard, and get your problem solved sooner, rather than later. Because polluted water, air or soil typically affect many families, not just one, neighbors can make noise by banding together to do the necessary research, make phone calls, hold informational meetings and rallies, etc. Another way to make noise is to enlist the help of local newspapers and TV in making the pollution in your neighborhood a high profile story that puts pressure on government to fix it. (4) Get a lawyer. Fighting pollution in your neighborhood is usually scientifically and legally complicated. The company that polluted your neighborhood has had a lawyer working – often behind the scenes, and for years – to get her client “off the hook” for the problem it caused. And that lawyer has hired scientists to help accomplish this goal, usually by offering theories about why the company really didn’t do anything wrong, or about how the pollution isn’t really as widespread or dangerous as it truthfully may be. While you will never have the money that the company has to pay lawyers and scientists, hiring an experienced environmental lawyer of your own is the best way to get some power on your side, and use the legal system to help you get the answers and solution that you need. (5) Get tough. Don’t panic. When you arm yourself with reliable information, band together with your neighbors, and hire a good lawyer to do battle with the polluter, you have taken the most important steps to protecting your family. While panic is an understandable human reaction to first learning that your family’s water, air or soil may be polluted, don’t allow those feelings to cause you to lose sight of those steps – like the ones we mention above – that you must take to protect the people who matter to you most. The opposite of panic – denial – is also an emotion to be avoided. Pretending that there is no problem does not take you and your family out of harms’ way… it keeps you there. Get informed. Get represented. Get moving.