For Pollution’s Sake, Privatize Federal Land Already


Español The US government has a hazardous waste problem. Many federal departments have properties that are contaminated with everything from radiation at Department of Energy facilities to petrochemicals on current and former military bases.

The departments of Agriculture and the Interior are no different, as highlighted in a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Over 5,000 sites managed by these two departments are either likely to be contaminated or have been confirmed to be polluted with some form of hazardous waste. Moreover, the Department of the Interior has a backlog of more than 30,000 possibly contaminated abandoned mines waiting to be assessed. The vast majority of these sites are on lands in the western half of the country, scattered throughout properties of the Bureau of Land Management.

A map of the abandoned mines on Bureau of Land Management properties.
A map of the abandoned mines on Bureau of Land Management properties. (GAO)

The report is the latest in a long series of case studies that show that the federal government is generally a poor steward of the lands that fall within its jurisdiction. In 2014, Newsweek deemed the Department of Defense one of the world’s biggest polluters. It’s only logical that other government agencies, especially those whose explicit mandate is to oversee federal lands, would have similar failings. The departments of Agriculture and the Interior claim to currently have about US$500 million in environmental liabilities that will require future clean up, nearly all of which will be paid with taxpayer dollars.

However, these estimates are an understatement. In 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers assessed Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) on Agriculture and Interior department lands and found the potential clean up cost to be much higher. Millions have already been spent to mitigate the environmental damage wrought by these sites, and yet the Corps determined that another $4.7 billion will be needed to complete the remediation of the hundreds of remaining sites.

Moreover, if we know anything about the history of government projects, that number is probably still far too low. Large government projects often end up costing far more than expected, even double by the time they are completed.

When we tally up all the spending needed, accounting for the likely cost overruns, it would not be unrealistic to expect a total of around $10 billion in the long run. To put this in context, the annual budget of the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior has averaged about $1.3 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1970.

The backlog of projects is a real problem that must be addressed in a serious way. Lingering damage poses a threat not just to taxpayers, but to those who live near the thousands of contaminated sites. The short-run solution would be for the two departments to inventory and assess all sites in their purview, and provide realistic cost estimates. Over the medium to long term, the Agriculture and Interior departments should encourage private solutions to some of these problems.

First and foremost would be cooperating with the many active environmental nonprofit groups to use private funds to clean up environmentally undesirable sites. This goes hand in hand with the second answer, which is privatizing much of the property holdings of these departments, or devolving control to the states.

Legislators from the western United States have long clamored for more control of state lands, and could dedicate state and local funds to remediation, if supported by voters. This would relieve the burden of cleanup from the taxpayers who would otherwise never benefit from the lands. Giving more control of environmental issues to state and local governments could also speed up the remediation process and allow innovative land stewardship practices to take root.

The federal government is sitting on millions of acres of property, especially in the western half of the country. It has proven to be a poor custodian of these lands, overseeing thousands of contaminated sites. We cannot wait for future generations to undo the damage our predecessors have done.

It is high time for the government to assess the harm it has caused, and seek new approaches to fixing the nation’s environmental problems. The only question we’ll be asking ourselves then is, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”

Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

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