On Wednesday, Open Table hosted another discussion in the Transduction Lecture Series entitled “Community Impacts of Chemical Exposures: Are Agencies and Industries Obligated to Tell?” Welcoming environmental scientist and consultant Wilma Subra, the discussion focused on specific ecological disasters caused by firms, and whether these firms had a responsibility to correct the problems they had created. The participants represented a variety of viewpoints from across the University, including a Mechanical Engineering major, a Foreign Affairs major, and an Environmental Studies major.
Subra opened the talk by relaying stories of the harmful impacts that specific projects undertaken by certain agencies and industries have had on the surrounding population. In a number of counties in Louisiana, for example, manufacturing companies began to discharge toxic waste into the local water supply. Despite the danger that this chemical dumping had on those drinking the contaminated water, the Louisiana Department of Health released a report that emphasized the safety of drinking local well water. However, upon conducting research and accessing the data of the Department of Health, Subra discovered that the well water (and all groundwater) was dangerous to consume. When the department was pressured to explain why they lied to the general populace, spokespeople stated that the department told this mistruth because they did not have funding to clean up the spills. Similar investigations showed that companies, including Dow Chemical, were spilling chemicals into local water sources with few repercussions for their actions.
The talk underscored the fact that private corporations in the United States are often not liable for the harm they cause to the environment, instead using their status as private entities to protect their extreme practices. Public agencies reinforce this harmful practice, failing to punish the firms that create environmental disasters, and neglecting to solve problems, oftentimes due to lack of funding. Students’ questions led to a discussion of the impact that media and online data have had on making agencies and industries more accountable for their actions. While the presence of online data has forced corporations and government bodies to be more transparent, Subra reinforced that this has not truly forced private institutions to take more responsibility for their practices. Similarly, while the media constantly reports on environmental disasters caused by companies, this outrage has not translated to more accountability.
Wednesday’s discussion about the obligations of industries and agencies to report potentially dangerous environmental results of certain actions reinforces the need for a variety of disciplines to tackle issues such as this. While scholars and researchers in the field of environmental studies certainly focus on issues such as this, there is also a need for those in the fields of engineering, policy, and many others to come together to further fix these issues. The mission of OpenGrounds is to bring together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, and today’s discussion presented a perfect example of the need for such a space.