Monday, July 1, 2013

Environmental law and smoke

January's issue of Environmental History included a review by Jody Roberts of Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters, by Duncan Maysilles (UNC Press, 2011). The book deals with the environmental damage and legal battles connected with copper smelting operations of Ducktown, Tennessee around the turn of the twentieth century, including the first US Supreme Court case on air pollution. Roberts writes:
In a time before federal agencies and statutes governed the environment through networks of expertise, law, and budgetary power, individuals took action through local courts and sought damages (largely in terms of lost crops) to their property. The courts moved slowly. Compensation never quite matched the damage done. And the health of the population rarely factored into the discussion. Lawyers filing on behalf of plaintiffs applied centuries-old nuisance laws to address the issue. The smoke, indeed, may have been a nuisance to individual's property, but the operations as a whole wreaked ecological catastrophe of biblical proportions on the area, transforming one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth into a barren wasteland. And the law had little to say about it.
Roberts goes on:
For scholars working in the area of the history of environmental law and policy, the story of Ducktown helps to highlight three important themes: the problem of scale, the role of science in developing and supporting environmental policy, and the belief in the technological fix.
The interplay of science, technology, and policy in the early decades of the twentieth century help to establish an early preference for what is commonly referred to as command-and-control style regulation that has come to characterize the US approach to environmental governance.
For more on nuisance law and industrial pollution, see here.

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