These days, the phrase “billions of dollars” doesn’t sound like quite a lot. But it still is. Especially when they’re your dollars, and they’re spent on problems that didn’t need to exist in the first place. Here are just a few examples:

You break it, we buy it: If you own a car or a house, you’re required by law to have insurance because you might be liable for a lot of money in the event of an accident. So if you own a nuclear power plant, you might be liable for unthinkable amounts of money in the event of an accident, right? No. Nuke plant operators are off the hook, thanks to the Price-Anderson Act, a half-century-old law that lets power companies skate if they happen to wipe a city off the map. The act, passed in 1957 and most recently renewed four years ago, requires nuke plant owners to post a modest bond into a federal fund, and caps their actual liabilities at a few hundred million. It’s enough of a giveaway that both veteran anti-nuke activists and libertarians are in rare agreement: Price-Anderson is a pre-emptive bailout for the nuke industry.

Perpetual payday for lawyers: Jimmy Carter said and did some very prophetic things on environmental issues, particularly when it came to energy. America, and the world, would be a different place today if we had followed through on the path he started on swapping out fossil fuel for alternatives. More on that in my column next week. But President Carter also signed into law what is arguably the biggest environmental/legal train wreck in American history, Superfund.

Enacted in the wake of the high-profile toxic disaster at Love Canal, New York in 1980, the fund sought to force polluters to clean up their own messes. Only about a fifth of the 1,500 or so priority sites on the Superfund list have been cleaned up. Attorneys’ and consultants’ fees have eaten up billions, and owners of polluted sites have become experts at using shell companies and bankruptcies to avoid paying their share of the costs.

Criticisms of Superfund haven’t changed over the years: Here’s one from the New York Times in 1994; from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis two years later; and this one from 2008 from Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal housewife-turned-activist. Lois has been called the “Mother of Superfund,” but now her “child” is turning 30, doesn’t work and still lives at home.

In fairness, Superfund is charged with cleaning up some sites for which absolute cleanup is an impossibility. Its funding was sharply cut back as part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” takeover of Congress in 1995. The actual Superfund fund went bankrupt in 2003. Now all of the cleanup, such as it is, is on you. The economic stimulus package gives $600 million more to EPA to push ahead on cleanups.

Cold War corrections: We spent billions building bombs. Now we’re spending much more to clean up the nuclear weapons sites. The cities around the Hanford, Washington nuclear weapons site faced a bleak future in the early 1990s when the Cold War ended. But Hanford had become one of the most contaminated sites in the country, and its communities prospered even more on cleaning up their own mess than they did at making it. The “Tri-Cities” towns of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland were briefly ranked as the nation’s fastest-growing real estate market in the mid-1990s. Imagine that: New residents flocking to an area whose allure is that it’s polluted.

The stimulus package gives the Hanford site another $2 billion in cleanup funds. Other sites in South Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Kentucky, New York and Tennessee also got stimulus money to clean up the Cold War’s mess.

Ulysses S. Grant’s stimulus package: The 1872 Mining Law might have been the right idea at the time. But 137 years later, you can still buy an acre’s worth of mining rights on federal land for about the price of a large bag of Doritos. Environmentally abusive practices at many mining sites have left the taxpayers holding the bag here as well.

Promise to clean it up, and make it dirtier: We’ll end on a state issue, but bear with me -- it’s my home state, and the politics of New Jersey are an unending source of amusement. The Jersey Meadowlands have seen their share of pollution and intrigue, but the ENCAP project may take the toxic cake. ENCAP was a grand scheme for a third life for a big part of the Meadowlands -- once an immensely productive wetland, then Metro New York’s trash heap and home to the New York Giants, Jets, and allegedly, the remains of Jimmy Hoffa. The project would bring office space, shops, restaurants, new communities, and a golf course, all about six miles from Times Square. With generous tax breaks and $358 million in loans from the state, ENCAP broke ground in 2004, pledging to clean up the site’s landfills and build the “Miracle in the Meadowlands.” Federal investigations, and some remarkable newspaper work from Jeff Pillets, John Brennan and others at the Record newspaper of Hackensack, N.J., revealed that ENCAP contractors brought in contaminated landfill from other sites, and actually managed to make the cleanup site dirtier than it was when they started. The project may never open, and the state may never get its money back.

My grandfather, who still votes in New Jersey, is probably turning in his grave.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

Political Habitat: Bailouts, bombshells and boondoggles
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