Superfund cleanups lead to tremendous health, economic, environmental and community progress, with a bonus of higher property values. Tacoma and Ruston are proof.
However, these gains require an Environmental Protection Agency that has the authority, will and funding to enforce environmental laws. And this requires Congress fully funding the EPA in the upcoming federal budget.
Where would Tacoma and Ruston be today had the EPA not flexed the legal muscle to implement the Asarco cleanup?
This was no small feat. For decades, the Tacoma smelter was the largest in the nation. The copper helped us win World War II, but smelting it brought disaster on home soil.
Happily, I’ve called Tacoma home for life, and I remember its darkest days. In the 1970s, The Washington Post deemed Tacoma the most horrific West Coast city.
I was wowed by copper slabs and the cart of sparkling gold and silver bars – copper smelting byproducts – shown during smelter tours. We all use copper, yet the bling tended to blind.
Hidden from this dazzling display was that other pair of pesky, persistent, and poisonous byproducts: arsenic and lead.
What is the ultimate health toll, from Olympia to Everett, on generations of people who were exposed to arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, pitched into the sky by that smelter only to settle on our lawns, parks and schoolyards?
As an economist who has carefully thought about it, I can tell you that is a hard question to answer. We may never know.
While public health costs remain elusive, the economic benefits of cleanup are more readily measured.
This month, my colleagues Matt Van Deren and Jordan Wildish of Tacoma’s own Earth Economics measured the property value increases that homeowners in Ruston realized thanks to the Asarco cleanup, and it totals more than $52 million.
Prior to cleanup, the most contaminated properties in Ruston were 25 percent below the market value of similar homes. After the cleanup, this gap all but disappeared.
By looking at the difference in property values between homes that were cleaned up and those that weren’t, the Earth Economics team pinpointed the portion of the increase due specifically to the cleanup. And it was big.
By forcing the polluter to pay, the EPA returned an average of $52,802 per home to Ruston property owners. That’s a lot of value. And the bigger value is protecting public health.
Law and economics say you should not damage other people to make money. The EPA enforces laws that protect our health and regulate toxic pollutants, including lead and arsenic.
Not only did Ruston realize $52 million in higher home values, there’s also a $1 billion Point Ruston mixed-use community rising at the smelter site. EPA didn’t use taxpayer money for cleanup; the polluter paid.
With this Superfund cleanup, Tacoma blossomed. Without it, the city would have floundered.
Today, the cleanup continues. Tacoma was ranked in the top 100 most livable cities in the US. Investment is flowing. EPA enforcement is a winner for economic development and public health.
However, without a strong EPA, communities like Wenatchee, the Tri-cities, Chelan, Spokane, Vancouver, Yakima and others will come up decades short on environmental cleanup and economic development.
Federal budget approval by Feb. 8 is required to avoid another government shutdown. We need to speak up now.
Members of our Washington state congressional delegation had better show their mettle in defending a strong, competent, fully funded EPA, so that our neighbors throughout the state can experience the same success as Tacoma.
David Batker is president and co-founder of Earth Economics, a Tacoma-based environmental nonprofit. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org