Two reports released this week reveal dangerous holes in our haphazard collection of environmental safeguards. The first, an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General (IG), found that sewage treatment plants in America fail to address hundreds of hazardous chemicals routinely released by industry. The second, by the international conservation group World Wildlife Fund, found that between 1970 and 2010 wildlife populations around the world dropped by more than half – and freshwater species declined even further: by 76 percent.
The IG report lists a flood of federal laws and regulations that, in an ideal world, should ensure that hazardous substances don’t make it into lakes, rivers, and streams at harmful levels. Those laws and requirements include the Clean Water Act, the Toxics Release Inventory, and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, among others. In reality, according to the IG, government implementation of these programs leaves huge gaps. For example, sewage treatment plant staff don’t monitor for hazardous chemicals released by industrial users. Instead, they focus on a list of 126 priority pollutants first targeted under the Clean Water Act way back in 1981 and never updated. Although the Toxic Release Inventory now identifies hundreds of hazardous substances released by industry each year, EPA offices operating under different programs fail to coordinate their monitoring efforts and almost never enforce limits. Bottom line: no one seems to know just what’s entering public treatment plants (which aren’t designed to handle hazardous waste), and more importantly, what’s coming out.
The World Wildlife Fund report tells a more global story, but the differences in wildlife declines around the world reveal regional trends: Wildlife populations declined the least in the wealthiest regions (such as in North America and Europe) and the most in poorer regions, such as Central and South America. In other words, the hazardous wastes leaking into our waterways (among other threats) might be killing fish and amphibians in the United States in frightening numbers, but the threats are even worse south of the border.
Yet we consume far more of the Earth’s goods and services here in the United States than most other people in the world. According to the report, the United States and China alone are responsible for about a third of humanity’s ecological footprint – the amount of land and water needed to provide all our goods and services. Overall, it would take 1.5 Earths to produce all the goods and services consumed by the more than 7 billion people on the planet. If everyone lived as we do in the United States, it would take 5. (You can calculate your own ecological footprint with the Global Footprint Network’s online calculator here).
Those resources are coming from somewhere, and the World Wildlife Fund report concludes that, in essence, those of us in the north are pillaging the resources of the south to meet our demand. We get the goods, and they lose their wildlife.
An uncomfortable reminder that we’re all in the same boat.