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Not in My Backyard!

by Ted Peters

Ted Peters was professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in 1993 when this article was written. He is the author of God—The World’s Future (Fortress). This article appeared in the Christian Century. February 15, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at http://www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In government circles it’s called the "NIMBY problem." Whether the proposal is for AIDS clinics, halfway houses for prison parolees or dumps for toxic and nuclear waste, it is usually met by the opposition of citizens’ groups who shout NIMBY -- "not in my backyard!"

Yet these components of modern life must exist in somebody’s backyard. As James Wall pointed out in "Storing Nuclear Waste: My Backyard or Yours?" (Nov. 9) , "What to do with nuclear waste is a problem that requires a moral examination precisely because it is so filled with uncertainty that we dare not resolve it without some sense of a higher purpose at stake." Without determining a higher purpose, we will never overcome the NIMBY obstacle.

NIMBY expresses our desire for self-preservation. People perceive the location of hazardous-waste landfill in their neighborhoods as a threat to their. own and their families’ health. Also, most people do not trust industrial or governmental leaders. History supports this suspicion. From 1980 to 1985 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recorded 6,928 accidents -- an average of five per day -- involving toxic chemicals and radioactive materials at American plants. A congressional research team in April 1985 concluded that nearly half of the 1,246 hazardous-waste dumps at surveyed showed signs of polluting nearby groundwater. The Office of Technology Assessment estimates that at least 10,000 hazardous waste sites in the U.S. now pose a serious threat to public health and are in dire need of cleaning up. During the 1970s, leakage from steel drums holding low-level nuclear waste brought about the closing of disposal sites in West Valley, New York; Sheffield, Illinois; and Maxey Flats, Kentucky. One could recite a lengthy litany of foul-ups, safety violations and instance of mismanagement, stupidity and cost-cutting. All this has diminished public confidence in government and business leaders. Motivated by fear and distrust, people join citizens’ action campaigns, hire lawyers to file class-action suits, and even take to the streets to protest the apparent threat to their safety and health. This seems the democratic thing to do, the right thing to do.

But is it? Our perspective changes quickly when we try to view NIMBY in light of the needs of society as a whole. We need waste dumps just as we need prisons and halfway houses. Our society as a whole needs somebody’s backyard. Yet in an age in which public participation is becoming integral to decision-making, we find that virtually no one wants to make a backyard available. NIMBY is becoming NIABY – "not in anybody’s backyard!"

Over the next decade our nation will face increased pressure to find a home for toxic refuse. The people’s mood, however, is one of refusal. Many states will run out of landfill sites in the early 1990s. but voter referendums are turning down new site proposals. Standards have now been set for disposal of hazardous wastes, but local citizens’ groups have petitioned to block the construction even of sites that would meet those standards. The Federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act has mandated that deep-mine disposal of high-level radioactive effluent and spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors commence by 1998, but states with proposed geological sites are screaming foul. What we have is a standoff; government agencies are instructed to establish dump sites, while local citizens’ groups prevent those agencies from performing their task.

We need ethical reflection on the situations. There have been two approaches to NIMBY that could be dubbed "ethical." In the case of the already alluded to defend-the-underdog approach, we assume that government agencies and associated industries conspire to exploit citizens by dumping toxic garbage on a community to the financial benefit of some power elite. The local citizens are the underdogs. The ethical thing to do seems to be championing the underdogs’ cause against the monolith of governmental and industrial power.

Although defending the defenseless is laudable, as a general rule this policy has two weaknesses. First, government and industry are not always marshaled against the people. Quite frequently government-agency employees who set and enforce policy are very conscientious and are simply doing the best they can, given their mandate from the legislature. Second, the defend-the-underdog approach looks after the interests of only a particular community; it does not take into account the good of the whole society.

A second approach concerns the wider issue of environmental protection. I call it the constipate-the-system strategy. This approach assumes that if all communities take the NIMBY attitude, government agencies will not be able to find any backyard in which to dump toxic chemicals and nuclear waste, and the system will become plugged. To relieve this constipation. we must consume less -- and to that end, nuclear power generators must shut down. This would force that industry out of business and perhaps even reduce our dependence on non-biodegradable petrochemicals. However, regardless of one’s position on the desirability of nuclear power or of petrochemicals. the toxic and radioactive waste cannot be wished out of existence. We still must find a place for waste ‘that has already been generated, and the longer we postpone dealing with it directly, the more we increase the danger of contamination.

The process of determining just whose backyard will play host will undoubtedly raise questions of justice. For precedents we may look to past experience with public works projects in general, such as dam construction. Here we can borrow a bit from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and assume that justice may be done even if the dam’s location causes some individuals the inconvenience of having to move their residence. In these cases, the ethics of justice make two demands: that the negative impact on the environment and on certain people will be offset by a clear benefit to the larger society, and that individuals and communities suffering adverse effects are offered a means of redress and are duly compensated. These criteria of justice can also apply to waste-dumping disputes.

The goal of redress and compensation will be impossible to achieve completely, however, because future generations, though among those to be affected by toxic waste storage, obviously cannot take part in negotiations about where to place that waste today. Once a hazardous-waste landfill has been filled and covered, it remains dangerous for decades. Certain nuclear wastes are extremely long-lasting in their toxicity. Some repositories may remain dangerous for thousands of years. The Department of Energy estimates that it generally takes 1,500 years for the relative biohazard index of high-level wastes to arrive at that of the ore from which it was made. For spent fuel it takes 10,000. And a site that contains plutonium 239 will be a threat for 250,000 or even 500,000 years. Our planet and its life-forms will inherit certain risks and, unless we make plans, they will inherit none of the benefits of waste disposal. A responsible ethic demands that we consider the good of the whole of society, temporally as well as geographically.

First, our basic criteria should be safety and permanence. Waste-disposal methods should not threaten the safety of those who live near disposal sites. Chemical toxicity and radioactivity levels should be kept as low as reasonably achievable in order to protect the biosphere. And we need to be confident that future generations will enjoy the same protections we wish for ourselves. These two criteria imply that we are responsible for developing the technology to secure permanent safety, or at least keep our waste in monitored retrievable storage.

Second, locations for hazardous-waste facilities should be determined primarily by technical ability to preserve safety and permanence. Some places make better hosts for waste facilities than others. For example, a chemical-waste landfill should be placed in an area that does not flood more often than once a century. The soil beneath should be heavy so as to resist the flow of water. The best sites have a thick natural layer of clay. Much more care needs to be taken in choosing locations for deep-mine repositories for high-level radioactive waste. A suitable disposal site for mined geologic waste must include the following characteristics: the rock mass’s previous geologic history should indicate probable stability for the next 10,000 years or more; it should be relatively isolated from circulating ground water; it must be capable of containing waste without losing its desirable properties; and it must be amenable to technical analysis.

Third, as mentioned above, the location of a waste facility is just if the repository can be reasonably expected to contribute to the good of the whole society, and if those persons and communities suffering adverse effects have a means of redress and are duly compensated. Sometimes businesses or the government attempt to buy a community’s compliance by offering more than appropriate or just compensation. They may offer a host community money to build a new town swimming pool or rebuild roads, and in general infuse the economy with outside wealth. The DOE, for example, offered the state of Nevada $10 million per year to relinquish its legal right to object to hosting a high-level nuclear repository, and $20 million per year if the site were to be chosen. Such over-compensation is extortion if demanded by the host community, bribery if offered by the authorities.

Extortion and bribery neglect two important considerations. Such a practice reduces the government’s motivation to apply its best technology and most vigilant management to the safekeeping of waste; it assumes that the right to increase the risks to public health and the environment can be purchased. Second, it contracts only with the present generation and ignores the future. Those living today increase their wealth, but those who come after us inherit only the toxic threat.

Compensation could be ethical if it addressed the first criterion mentioned above -- namely, the projected benefit to the commonweal. This requires a mutual relationship between part and whole: the good of the whole society benefits the individual person or community, while the achievements of the individual or community benefit the whole. Justifiable compensation (to the degree that it could be accurately calculated) would pay for actual damages or loss, including decreased property value or loss of environmental beauty and tranquillity. The difference between overpayment or bribes and ethical compensation will be very difficult to determine. The disruption of a host community’s quality of life cannot be easily measured in terms of dollars and cents; therefore rectification of known error should lean toward overpayment rather than underpayment.

In some cases the roles are reversed, which clouds the issue of redress. The EPA is now offering $50,000 grants to citizens’ groups that commission evaluations from experts of their own choice. Some communities, seeking financial income to offset high unemployment, decide on the basis of their findings to invite waste facilities into their backyard. The Alabama-Coushatta tribe of native Americans in East Texas, for example, has proposed building a waste incinerator on its land. The people of Chenois, Missouri, have asked for a hazardous-waste dump and received a permit, leading surrounding communities to lodge a legal protest. We may in the distant future have to reassess the ethics of this kind of practice, because we might wake up some day to find that we have dumped all our toxic refuse in poorer communities -- that the rich have exploited the poor once again.

Fourth, we should not ask residents near a disposal site to do anything we would not be willing to do if we were in their situation. Not all community residents will wish to sell their property and relocate if a waste facility is planned for their area. The repositories should be made as safe as possible for those remaining in the neighborhood. One test of such safety would be the willingness of those most in the know to live on site.

Fifth, we owe our progeny knowledge of the hazard. Withholding knowledge from future generations excludes them from our ethical community. At minimum we owe them an on-site warning that explains the dump’s contents. If possible, we should compile and make available a complete description of the landfill or. repository holdings. We should also take all feasible measures to ensure the site against vandalism or sabotage.

This leads directly to a sixth principle: the user should plan for future facility management and accident indemnification. The generation enjoying the benefits of producing chemical and radioactive waste should consider investing a portion of today’s profits in an endowment fund, gathered perhaps from a pollution tax. This endowment fund could support site management for decades, if not centuries. Some of the interest could be drawn for maintenance expenses, while the bulk of the principal would create an accident insurance fund. Interest over a 100- or 1,000-year period might grow to quite a sum. Barring unforeseeable circumstances, the fund could eventually provide a fortuitous compensation for the welfare of the future.

Finally, we need to employ our best technology and best management with painstaking care. No matter how ethically conscientious our vision, execution may fail to provide the greatest safety and permanence possible. We must encourage the highest quality of workmanship over the long haul. Financial constraints may tempt us to cut corners on quality. Because of the long-term and perhaps even boring nature of the work, we may slacken our concentration. But commitment to safety requires that we muster our best technology, and commitment to permanence requires that we be vigilant in establishing long-term management policies. All of us have an interest in solving the NIMBY problem. We should solve it justly. We will not be able to move beyond our current impasse until individual communities begin to work together with government agencies while sharing a vision of the good of society as a whole.


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