Environmental Crime Explained
Understanding environmental crime begins with a definition. The most recognized definition comes from Mary Clifford in her book entitled Environmental Crime, co-authored with Terry D. Edwards. They proposed the following definition of environmental crime: "an act committed with intent to harm or with a potential to cause harm to ecological and/or biological systems" (Clifford).
This basic definition provides a framework for looking at environmental crime in another way, through the eyes of the victims. The people of the tiny town of Treece, Kansas provide the human face of environmental crime victims.
These are the people who remained in town after mining ceased years ago. Either they themselves worked in the mines or are descendants of those miners. They knew about the polluted soil and water and how it affected their health, but there wasn't much they could do about it. Apparently, geography is destiny.
They watched as their neighbors in Pitcher, Oklahoma were bought out, that polluted town was closed, and everyone moved away. That mattered to the people of Treece because Pitcher was their trade and social center. They had many ties to the residents of Pitcher, Oklahoma. The thin state line separating the two towns also put them in different EPA districts. Pitcher, a much larger town, was bought out in 2005, leaving the citizens of Treece abandoned in an equally polluted town.
Finally on September 1, 2009 Treece, Kansas joined Pitcher, Oklahoma. The town of Treece officially ceased to exist. Oh, the buildings and streets didn't disappear. It just quit being a town, a place where people live, because it is, well, unlivable.
After decades of inaction as the EPA tried to "remediate" the place, this year Congress authorized "buying out the residents" and the EPA signaled "it's ready to move forward with emptying the town of people," as Dion Lefler reported (Wichita Eagle).
What was it like for these people for the years they have been waiting? Well, they've been living in homes they can't sell or repair. The banks would not lend money on a house that can't be sold. So, what they had is just what they had. Can't sell it, can't fix it. Susan Saulny quotes Treece Mayor Bill Blunk when he said, "It's dead...Wasted land."
After a century of mining, the southeast Kansas town "is plagued with lead, zinc and other chemical contamination" (Lefler). Residents who were tested in September were found to have "a median blood-lead level...of 4.0 micrograms per deciliter of blood, compared to the state norm of 2.5" (Lefler).
Certainly the dust blowing around town for decades from the mine waste, called chat, is full of lead and zinc. This has definitely caused harm to adults and children, hence an environmental crime. The crime has impacted the town's citizens emotionally as well. Abandoned houses have been vandalized, torched or taken over as meth labs, Lefler explained to NPR's Robert Siegel.
The land around Treece often "opens up" as ground collapses into the abandoned mine shafts. Since 1996 nearly 700 such cave-ins or sinkholes have been filled in by the state (Lawrence Journal World).
Interestingly, the mining "companies that still exist have paid only $1 of every $9 spent" on the cleanup (Lawrence Journal World).
Obviously, an environmental crime was committed here for decades. Going back to Clifford's basic definition, "ecological and biological systems have been harmed" by this act.
The criminals are still at large, too, though certainly not hiding out. They continue to open up the earth across Appalachia as they remove mountaintops, and dump debris in streams and rivers across the entire region. Drinking water is often a thick, black sludge of toxic waste. Floods occur regularly. People are sickened.
Entire ecosystems disappear as mountaintops are dumped onto surrounding land, burying fragile plant ecosystems forever, altering terrain and waterways, destroying fish and wildlife. Certainly a crime, by Clifford's definition - or anyone else's.
Clifford, Mary. Environmental Crime. Aspen Publishers, Inc. 1998.
Lawrence Journal World. March 20, 2007.
Lefler, Dion with Robert Siegel. NPR. August 25, 2009.
Lefler, Dion. Wichita Eagle. October 29, 2009.
Mountain Justice website.
Saulny, Susan. The New York Times. September 13 2009.