Sunday, September 25, 2011

Conversations With Ritmo

[This is a continuation from the comment thread back here]:

Me: The public trust and opinion of DoE at this point speaks for itself.

Ritmo: I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree. I must have far less faith in how well educated most Americans are on matters of science to endorse public opinion of a science agency, as a whole, as a meaningful mark of its performance.

Me: I'll concede that the average American is unaware of the damage Chu is doing. Hell, most people wouldn't even recognize him or any other previous DoE Secretary.

[pause to swig beers]

Ritmo: I simply don't understand why an industry - especially an industry with a financial stake in how a scientific matter is decided - should be privileged in determining a regulatory agency's decisions. They have the least reason for objectivity of any party.

Me: The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene.

Ritmo: I don't agree. Litigation benefits from harms that are very damaging, immediately observable and intensely personal. (Makes for a better narrative in front of a jury, I suppose). If the costs of a small scale harm, pollutant, toxin, etc. are spread out over an entire population, over a very long period of time, the harm is ignored, the harm is conflated with natural, pre-existing risks, the harm is allowed to be seen as normative, and then allowed to be increased based on a higher threshold level of damage now becoming the new norm.

Me: I was thinking more along the lines of Erin Brokovich in California. The alleged culprit in that case, hexavalent chromium, was present in wells and drinking water in CA. Cancer deaths were alleged.  Yet chromium VI has no aqueous carcinogenicity. Like asbestos, is an airborne, inhaled threat. (BTW, have you ever toured the USS Missouri or the USS Midway? Asbestos throughout--everywhere inside because the inside of ship has lots of hot water and steam flowing around and the ship fitters just wrapped everything in asbestos.  Nowadays, to make it a non-airborne threat, it has all been clear-coated with a polymer.  But I digress.
So the Erin Brokovich story (a story of legal greed) is based on fraudulent scientific claims.  If there were a waterborne threat from Cr(VI), the EPA (not just California) sure as hell would have slapped some limits on it.
Another favorite environmental overreaction: Time Beach, Missouri. Dioxin was once alleged to be the most toxic chemical known to man...not true!  That Ukrainian politico ate a ton and survived. I've followed this incident since around 1982, though I haven't kept up on it.
Third, taconite tailings in Lake Superior.  This is a bit dad used to bemoan how taconite tailings clouded the waters around Silver Bay, Minn, around where taconite is processed.  Reserve Mining Co. dumped the tailings into the water until 1977 when an injunction forced them to dump it back on land. In my opinion, Reserve Mining should have returned the waste ore products back to where the removed it from, unless the item of commerce was the bulk of the material.  Yet the Reserve Mining Case decision was decided in part on fraudulent claims of cancer!

Ritmo: Public, common resources, are therefore especially prone to degradation - despite our crucial reliance on them. This probably argues for more vigilant oversight over such resources than over private property, given the lack of stakeholders with a solely personal interest. Organizing class action suits is hard enough. Organizing an entire society around these more easily hidden harms, damn near impossible.

Me: The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene.

Ritmo: Since it seems we may be getting into a discussion on the best way to regulate the commons, negative externalities, etc., the collapse of fisheries might be a better example. Recent (dare I say "ground-breaking") economic research has been recognized in this field. The basic idea seems to be that important long-term interests and short-term goals may often be at odds with each other, and balancing them out doesn't always fall best under the purview of a single party.

Me: Care to expand upon that?


  1. I think Blogger's preventing comments that exceed a length limit.

    I have a response that it kept looping back to the editing window without posting, and then when I previewed a comment consisting of just the word "test", I could see it would take.

    I could try to cut my response into two sections. That might help on both our parts. I can see why it would be frustrating because Blogger's not giving the reason for why the comments aren't taking. But if that's the case, just try cutting your comment into snips.


  2. I'm reluctant to respond here because cutting and pasting from more than one thread is allowing you to edit in a way that presents one reply as if it were a reply to something other than the comment that originally prompted it, which can dilute the context of a specific conversation thread.

    Nevertheless, I'm game to continue - as long as you keep that in mind.

    I'll probably get by best in keeping it short where possible [edit - not always possible ;-)].

    #1. The "Erin Brokovich" case was settled in 1996. Times change. Polluters/industries have more political clout now and since than they did then, compared to environmental interest groups.

    #2. "That Ukrainian politico ate a ton and survived."

    Wow. If you really think that this is the sort of life that chemical industries should fight to give us, I'm not sure what to say. Severe disfigurement and disability short of death is still something that most of us think is worth doing our most to avoid. Should Yushchenko be thanking dioxin manufacturers for providing society with a chemical that only did this sort of damage to him?

    Would you say he has a satisfactory cancer risk now?

    I think his lawyer could argue that the damages affected his ability to earn a living, at the least...

    Dioxin might or might not be the "most toxic" substance known to man when it was first regulated. But my understanding is that it was one of the more widespread industrial contaminants, ubiquitous in a lot of processes - and very persistent, which is a problem. And as far as taconite goes, I don't see how concern for its presence in water provides a better reason for its disposal on any land as opposed to a source extraction site. I don't see the connection one way or the other; both alternatives should have fulfilled the concern, even if you point out that retention at an original extraction site made more sense. In either event, would you take issue with action against dispersal of a compound based just on the visual pollution it creates?

  3. Cont...

    3. There is a difference between litigation and regulation. I made the case of powerful financial conflicts in reference to industries being able to sway regulators (depending on the administration), not courts.

    4. If you want an acknowledgment that harms can be over-stated, I'll supply it so long as you're willing to acknowledge that industries are sometimes willing to fight and lobby for regulatory standards that are lower than our level of scientific certainty regarding all possible risk outcomes associated with that standard.

    And in the case of the tobacco companies, well... Come on. Should their behavior really be seen as uniquely opportunistic?

    Many chemical processes companies are doing a good job of pursuing "green" chemistry loops, whereby toxic by-products are either eliminated by shorter, less complicated synthesis, lessened, or perhaps reused in other processes. I don't see this as a win-lose when it comes to synthesis companies, which is the party with whom I suspect your loyalties or interests lay. Is it really worth this many words to argue against being cautious, pursuing industrial processes with less known or potential hazards, and less exposure of those things to the environment or consumers? To do so really would lag far behind where consumers want you guys to be, regardless of how you want to argue the science of industrial toxicology. I think they have a point and most companies seem to want to either agree or offer the perception of agreement. Are you opposed to that?

    Another example: Most environmental tox is geared toward studying the effects of a single agent/pollutant. Our knowledge of how an entire compendium of artificial compounds acts synergistically (together) in biological systems, that have not evolved to handle them in persistently elevated quantities, is much less well developed.

    Q. Should we not exercise the precautionary principle and, instead, take it on the "faith" of our industrial over-lords that this ignorance and exposure is a good thing?

    5. "Care to expand upon that?"

    Not too protractedly. In sum, over-fishing and the collapse of many if not most commercial fishing stocks is a pretty well established development. If you want to argue or see past the fact that the short-term interests of larger fishing operations before and during those collapses were at odds with those of us who would still wish to maintain adequate fishing stocks today, then I'm not sure how to pursue that explanation.

    But assuming we can agree on the concept, then we might be able to talk about how that problem might be best approached or regulated.

    Or we can just have a beer - lol.

    Cheers - (Sorry about my use of the word "over-lords", too. I considered redacting it in the interest of encouraging collegiality, but it was too fun a turn of phrase to avoid. No harm intended, but I'm sure I'll pay for it now ;-)).

  4. BTW: A great book I'm currently reading regarding the collapse of the fisheries. I'm still not finished with it of course, but highly recommend it as a way to get acquainted with the problem of insufficient management of this incredibly important natural resource.

  5. I think these articles might be worth reviewing in consideration of how you present the dangers of dioxins (which are a family of compounds, not one in particular. "Most toxic" is a phrase whose meaning is not clear. But I'd say disfiguring teratogens are not the sort of compounds whose known dangers to human health are worth the effort of whitewashing):,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin#Toxic_effects_in_animal_studies

    Disagreement would really put you at extreme odds with known medical science and the sort of risks that are considered highly unacceptable to human health. Any physician who knowingly and freely sanctioned the use of therapeutic compounds with side effects such as these would rightly fear the loss of his license. Pharma companies can absorb the suits brought by this as a cost of doing business in a highly profitable industry with compounds whose risks are never fully known until they reach a broader population. And the FDA, as the government agency that approves their use, is immune from suit. Doesn't make whitewashing risks that become known any less unethical.