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Does Our Civil Justice Succeed in Handling Corporate Pollution of the Environment?

How well does our civil justice system perform against corporate pollution of our environment as in the BP oil spill? In 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef off Alaska and spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil over a thousand miles of remote coastline. Exxon's immediate response was to embark on a campaign to avoid responsibility that would last decades. Now, twenty years later, the BP oil spill has ruined Louisiana marshes and threatens its fisheries for years to come. History is repeating itself as BP blames the owner of the rig and all its subcontractors for the catastrophe.

Corporations have consistently responded to the environmental disasters they have caused by passing the buck for as long as possible. They know the initial outrage will dim, media coverage will diminish, political administrations will change, and industry regulators will go through the revolving door to join the industry they once watched. In response to calamities like oil-coated beaches in Santa Barbara in the west and Lake Erie's burning rivers in the east, the consciousness of a nation was raised in the nineteen sixties to corporate exploitation and abuse of the environment.

The first attempts of the sixties movement to rein in corporate destruction of our ecology resulted in congressional passage of such laws as the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act to impose limits on corporate polluters that had been dumping toxins in our air, water, and land with abandon. Other laws have since been passed, but these acts remain the pillar of environmental law to this day. However, laws are only as good as their enforcement.

We see today how an underfunded and understaffed FDA cannot adequately inspect all egg farms to see that the eggs delivered to the consuming public are safe for consumption. Unfortunately, we have also seen how underfunded and understaffed government agencies let Wall Street cost our government and us a fortune, because they weren't able to inspect everything that was going on.

In the same ways, the agencies responsible for implementing new regulations under the environmental pollution acts were incapable of dealing with what was a wild west of corporate pollution. Underfunded, understaffed, and overpowered by the influential industries they sought to monitor, regulators were time and time again forced to settle for small fines or overlook corporate misconduct entirely.

Until 1965, this was the situation. It was into this breach that our country's civil justice system stepped. And when it did, it largely changed the landscape of corporate pollution forever. More to come next week about this.


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