The polluter pays principle requires that those who cause any pollution should also pay for the consequences. The principle affects any type of pollution, whether land, air, or water. If, for example, an industrial facility produces any toxic waste or chemicals as a by-product of their operations, they should ensure the safe disposal of such toxic products.
The importance of the polluter pays principle lies in its potential contributions to the environmental justice movement. This principle, alongside litigatory efforts employed by environmental justice lawyers, could change the world for the better.
The Polluter Pays Principle Origin
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the polluter pays principle. However, this principle was most clearly articulated by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in 1972. Since the OECD’s initial declaration, the polluter pays principle has appeared in a variety of documents and at several economic forums.
Applying the Polluter Pays Principle in the United States
The polluter pays principle is typically applied in the form of taxes in the U.S., for example, an emissions tax, and collected by the government, according to the global coalition Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade (EJOLT). Environmental taxes can go a long way in helping to preserve environmental quality.
The polluter pays principle was somewhat successfully applied in the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Exxon had to pay billions in damages over a massive pollution incident. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez caused unprecedented pollution and economic losses in Alaska when it spilled over 300,000 barrels of crude oil into Alaskan waters in 1989. In total, Exxon agreed to pay $900 million in civil claims, $125 million for criminal charges relating to the disaster, and cleanup costs of over $2 billion.
It often takes tenacious litigation to hold polluters responsible for the damage they do to the environment and affected communities and to get them to pay. Arguably, underprivileged communities may lack the help and support to hold polluters accountable. A good first step can be to contact an environmental justice lawyer to discuss a case of environmental pollution and whether a polluter could potentially be accountable under the polluter pays principle.
The Polluter Pays Principle and Environmental Justice
While, in general, the polluter pays principle may help to offset costs associated with pollution or toxic environments, its effect on wider environmental justice issues to date is perhaps debatable.
According to the International Review of Law and Economics, a variation of the polluter pays principle could potentially be used to compensate communities for suffering the consequences of pollution. However, this has been predominantly the case only in developing countries.
In some instances, the state may be responsible if a polluter is either not identifiable or insolvent. Being ultimately responsible can be a motivation for governments to uphold environmental laws and increase the monitoring of activities that cause pollution and exposure to environmental toxins.
In the United States, recourse typically comes through the legal system, which can hold those responsible accountable for their failures as well as help to compensate the plaintiffs for any damages.
United States Polluter Pays Legislation Examples
Some examples of the “polluter pays” principle in action in the United States are:
Gaz Guzzler Tax for Cars
A gas guzzler tax is a commonly known “polluter pays” principle example. Levied and collected by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), this tax applies to cars with low fuel efficiency and aims to offset the amount of air pollution that such vehicles cause in comparison to higher fuel efficiency vehicles. The gas guzzler tax is part of the Energy Tax Act of 1978.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE)
Similar to the gas guzzler tax, the corporate average fuel economy standards regulate how far a car should be able to travel on a gallon of fuel. Standards for passenger vehicles come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). If a car falls short, the manufacturer may have to pay CAFE penalties. Unfortunately, some manufacturers choose to pay the penalties rather than produce fuel-efficient cars.
The Superfund Law
The superfund law intends to ensure that polluters pay for the cleanup of these extremely hazardous and toxic sites. Whenever possible, a polluter should pay. In the instances when this is not possible, a superfund trust fund is available for expenses connected with any cleanup of superfund sites. If the superfund site is a federally owned site, such as a military base, the government agency will need to clean the site with federal monies rather than trust fund funds.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022
Between the years 1953 and 1987, the U.S. government unknowingly supplied contaminated water to service members stationed at Camp Lejeune, a military base located in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The base’s water supplied contained over 70 known carcinogens, which can cause:
- Multiple myeloma
For many years, victims of the Camp Lejeune water crisis were forced to turn to Veterans’ Association (VA) benefits to receive compensation for their damages. Benefits, while helpful, can’t always cover the full extent of a water contamination victim’s losses.
However, Congress is currently working to provide veterans with another legal option. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, a proposed piece of legislation, could offer veterans the chance to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government. The Act has garnered support from both sides of the political spectrum.
The Camp Lejeune Act of 2022 isn’t a typical polluter pays principle case. However, it represents an instance where legal tools, not taxes, could hold a large entity responsible for its pollution. You can learn more about Camp Lejeune water contamination litigation.
Polluter Pays Principle Disadvantages
However, there are some challenges with the polluter pays principle. These are some polluter pays principal disadvantages.
First, it can sometimes be tricky to identify and track down a polluter. Industrial facilities may also try to hide the fact that they are responsible for a pollution event. Administration expenses spent to identify the polluter, and hold them to account, may also be considerable.
Some types of environmental pollution are long-lasting and horrific. One could argue that there should be more stringent regulations in the first place to help avoid any disasters and long-term toxic pollution, rather than to tackle the problem after the pollution has already happened. It is impossible to offset some environmental hazards by financial compensation, and the wider ecosystem, as well as the health of communities, could be irretrievably damaged for many years.
Call Us for Help With Your Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Case
The polluter pays principle, while far from perfect, does offer some advantages for environmental justice, as it can be a good framework for establishing legal recourse against a polluter.
If a pollution event has impacted your community and you suffered harm, you should speak to us as we could help you and others seek justice. We can advise those impacted by the contaminated water supply at Camp Lejeune. Contact Ben Crump Law, PLLC today for a free consultation.