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#140 - What Have Nimbys Done For Me Lately, 31-Jul-1989

The term Nimby is now at least 10 years old. So far as we can trace the
term back, it was invented by the nuclear power industry to describe
people who opposed the siting of nuclear power plants nearby.

There are three nimby positions:

1) Society needs these things but I don't want one near me because
they're dangerous, so put it near someone else;

2) Society needs these things but I don't want one near me because
they're dangerous, and therefore no one should live near one, so site
them all remote from humans;

3) Society does not need any of these things and/or would be better off
without them, so I oppose siting them anywhere.

People trying to site new waste facilities (dumps and incinerators)
like to classify all their opponents as Nimbys of the first kind. The
first type of Nimby gives a self-centered but rational response to a
problem. Nimbys of the second and third kinds are not only rational,
but they also have a broader perspective.

Those who want to site new waste facilities argue:

1) Incinerators and dumps are no more dangerous than other things
people routinely accept;

2) They meet all government regulations;

3) Society has an obligation to accept these facilities because society
DEMANDS the products that create the wastes;

4) Society has an obligation to accept these facilities because they
are better than the facilities they replace.

We'll discuss these points in order:

1) People have a right to choose the risks they are willing to endure,
and one person has no inherent right to impose a risk on another
person. If I choose to accept the risks of smoking tobacco but I refuse
to allow you to truck radioactive wastes through my neighborhood, that
is a legitimate choice for me to make. You may disagree with my
particular choice, and you may wish to make different choices for
yourself, but you have no right to impose your choice on me. Even if
"you" represent the majority, it is still dubious whether you have the
right to impose your hazards on me; the Constitution presumes that you
do NOT have that right and we have elaborate legal mechanisms for
settling such questions.

2) Unfortunately, federal and state regulations are so skimpy (so few,
so lax, so unenforced) that waste facilities can be quite dangerous and
still meet all regulations. For example, as NEWSWEEK points out (July
24, 1989, pg. 28), after 19 years of effort, Congress and the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have established air quality regs
for only seven toxic air pollutants. Municipal solid waste incinerators
emit at least 216 chemicals (or classes of chemicals, such as
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, many of which cause cancer in
animals) [see RHWN #35], so it is entirely reasonable to believe that
one's health may be harmed by a municipal solid waste incinerator that
meets every regulation. The regs simply don't protect public health and

But let's be specific. We are currently opposing a new mass burn
incinerator in Falls Township, PA, about six miles from our office. It
will burn 2250 tons per day of municipal solid waste. The proponent of
the project (Wheelabrator) admits the plant will emit the following
pollutants each year: lead, 5 tons; non-methane hydrocarbons, 8 tons;
mercury, 17 tons; nitrogen oxides, 2248 tons; sulfur dioxide, 853 tons;
hydrogen chloride (acid), 777 tons; sulfuric acid mist, 87 tons;
fluorides, 18 tons; particles (PM10), 98 tons; cadmium, 580 pounds;
nickel, 580 pounds.

This is a "state-of-the-art" incinerator, the very best that money can
buy, says Wheelabrator. But the lead emissions equal the amount of lead
put out by 2500 AUTOMOBILES DRIVING for a year on leaded gasoline; the
U.S. is phasing out leaded gasoline because of the airborne lead
hazard--does it make sense to now burn garbage and introduce a new lead
hazard? It does not. Any of the three Nimby responses to such a
proposal makes sense.

Look at the mercury emissions from this state-ofthe-art furnace: 17
tons per year. Back in 1971, the largest mercury polluters (paper
companies) rapidly cut their mercury emissions below one ton per year--
and then they changed technologies to pollute even less. Mercury
accumulates in the food chain and has serious, irreversible effects on
the human brain--it destroys brain cells, leaving tiny cavities inside
the skull. Again, any of the three Nimby responses make sense.

Look at the other pollutants on the list: fluorides, cadmium, and
nickel are toxic; non-methane hydrocarbons are a mixed brew of
carcinogens; nitrogen oxides (2248 tons of them) contribute to the
world's worsening acid rain problem.

Wheelabrator will put the ash from this operation (562 tons of it each
day, 7 days a week) into a double-lined landfill. After 20 years,
Wheelabrator will walk away from the dump, leaving local people to
worry about the following quantities of toxic heavy metals, which will
never degrade: 242,260 pounds of arsenic, 271,000 pounds of cadmium,
546,140 pounds of chromium, 1,067,620 pounds of nickel, and 23,569,860
pounds of lead. This is a "state of the art" double-lined landfill, the
best that money can buy, Wheelabrator says. The HDPE (high density
polyethylene) liners are guaranteed by the linermanufacturer not to
leak for 20 years. But the metals are guaranteed (by God, or Nature) to
remain toxic for millenia. Again, any of the three Nimby responses make

These proposals could only slip through if local citizens remained
glued to their TV sets. It is a credit to their alertness, their
concern, and their energy that they are fighting these proposals
vigorously. If it weren't for the Nimbys (of all three kinds), these
proposals would be sailing through unopposed.

3) People may use the products that industry makes, but people do not
demand that they be made with dangerous chemicals. The consumer demand
for dangerous chemicals is created by the companies that use dangerous
chemicals in manufacture. In the 1970s, when American consumers
boycotted (later outlawed) chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in spray cans, to
protect the earth's ozone shield in the stratosphere, CFC demand
plummeted. In response, the CFC producers set their marketing
departments to work and developed replacement markets in the
electronics industry, where CFCs are now the standard way of cleaning
circuit boards. The CFC manufacturers had hundreds of millions of
dollars tied up in CFC production plants and felt they couldn't afford
to lose their investment. But to blame the consumer, claiming the
consumer created the demand for these products, is simply not true. The
marketing of newly-created products is carefully managed to manipulate
consumer demand. For example, the campaign to shift consumers to
plastic bags at the grocery store had three phases: during the first
phase, the supermarket checker asked you if you wanted paper or
plastic; in phase two, you had to ask for paper; in the final stage,
you accepted plastic or nothing.

4) Newsweek magazine claimed July 24 that Nimbys must be "arrested"
because "Nimby patrols oppose nearly all construction of new waste
facilities, which has the effect of locking society in to already-
existing facilities--the lousy old designs." But the truth is, the new
designs suffer from the same flaws as the old designs: they are
inadequate to protect the public and the planet. The new designs are
simply the lousy old designs dressed up with a fresh coat of whitewash.
There are sound reasons to oppose them and, until adequate designs are
put forth, Nimbys of all three kinds provide a needed service to the

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: nimby; incineration; landfilling; wheelabrator; lead;
mercury; nitrogen oxides; fluoride; arsenic; air pollution; water
pollution; beryllium; sulfur dioxide; cadmium; nickel; fine particles;