Thursday, December 20, 2007

McCullom Lake

The job of protecting the water supply in McHenry county falls to the Health Department. These are the people that say your septic system has to be 75 feet from your well to keep you from getting sick.

It is also their job to verify that companies operating in McHenry County conform to standards that protect the air and water from contamination. Roam Haas maintained an unlined open lagoon as a waste pit for their chemical plant. It was the job of the Health Department and, by extension, the county board to insure the water supply for the surrounding communities was protected.

The “market is the cure for all ills” has been the ongoing mantra for more than 25 years. The theory is that market forces will protect us from abuses of business. The reality is far different. Market forces only guarantee that companies will do everything in their power to maximize profit. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. But there is a far older and long tested adage that applies in the market place, “trust everyone, but count your change.”

The job of government is to level the playing field, to insure that the rights of the individual are not trampled by the forces of money and power. It is no accident that the first three words of the Constitution are “We the People.” The purpose of government, stated eloquently in the first paragraph of the Constitution is: “to form a more perfect union; to establish justice; to provide for the common defense; to promote the general welfare; and to secure the blessings of liberty onto ourselves and our posterity.”

One aspect of establishing justice, and promoting the general welfare is to insure that no person or group of people regardless of station or wealth is allowed to trample the rights of another. The companies in question have been operating in McCullom Lake for decades. The cost of a few wells to monitor the condition of the ground water surrounding these businesses would have been insignificant, especially compared to the cost of cleaning up contamination or the loss to the families in question.

Every four-year-old learns – you mess it, you clean it. The cost of holding these companies to the standards that would have prevented the contamination in the first place would have been far cheaper than the legal battle about to be played out. But none of this was done, so we are left with a bitter lesson, and the need to insure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

The determination of the responsibility of Roam Haas and Modine and the other companies involved in the McCullom Lake tragedy is now in the hands of the courts and twenty-twenty hindsight. Except, in this case, hindsight isn’t twenty-twenty. Time and changing circumstance have distorted the situation. An exact determination of responsibility will be difficult and expensive for all parties concerned. An answer is years and maybe decades away - too far removed for the satisfaction of the victims or their families. Rohm Haas will lose regardless of the outcome of the court case. The victims will lose because no amount of compensation will restore their lives. And the people of McCullom Lake will lose because of the cloud that now blankets their community. Only the lawyers will win.

It is unreasonable to expect that any kind of market force will compel business to protect the residents of a community, especially when the owners and operators of the business are remote from the community in which they operate. It is the job of government to defend the residents of the community.