In April 2010, a massive oil spill blighted the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of an explosion on the deep-sea drilling rig Deepwater Horizon. Extensive damage to marine life, coastal industry and the livelihoods of thousands of Americans characterized the Deepwater Horizon spill — the largest oil spill in United States history.
Earlier this month, officials at British Petroleum (BP) announced that they had arrived at a settlement with the American government’s Department of Justice after two years of litigation. The massive power company has committed to pleading guilty to charges of manslaughter, and will pay a total of $4.5 billion in fines for violating environmental legislation — the largest such payout in U.S. legal history.
Unfortunately, that’s not such a bold claim. As former environmental crime chief at the U.S. Department of Justice David M. Uhlmann said last week, BP’s fine is relatively small under the circumstances. In fact, a BP press release in October of this year announced that their third-quarter profits alone would top $5 billion, meaning BP can absorb this monster fee with little more than a hiccup.
If fees are not high enough to dissuade environmental damage, America’s Environmental Protection Agency runs the risk of allowing companies to “pay to pollute.” And the problem of toothless protection agencies is not confined to America. Environment Canada’s fines have long been too low, and in many cases, taxpayers are left with most or all of the bill when it comes to cleaning up.
Ecojustice, a Canadian charity that focuses on environmental law, reported last year that “Environment Canada took more than 20 years to collect $2.4 million in fines under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. In comparison, the Toronto Public Library collected $2.6 million in fines for overdue books in 2009 alone.”
In October, Cape Breton’s notorious Sydney tar ponds were in the news yet again. The tar ponds, which for years had the dubious distinction of being one of Canada’s most toxic hazardous waste sites, are entering the final, $17-million phase of a $400-million clean-up paid for by the provincial and federal governments. The original company, Domtar, abandoned its operations in 1962 and conducted little or no clean up.
The Britannia Mine near Squamish is a more local example. The mine operated from 1900 until 1974 with little regard to the fact that its acidic tailings were polluting the nearby ground and waterways. Some steps were taken to lessen the impacts after the mine was shut down in 1974, but weak oversight in the following years caused an environmental disaster around the site. Britannia Creek, although crystal clear, would not support life, and there were problems nearby in Howe Sound as well. The Province eventually stepped in and fined the former operators a mere $30 million. Today, water is treated before flowing into the ocean and fish are reportedly returning to the area.
If governments are to have any hope of reining in wanton environmental damage and pollution by corporations, they have to arm their protective agencies with enough staff, funding, and power to levy impactful fees. Otherwise, we might as well be printing out “buy 1 spill, get 1 free” coupons.