Between June 20th and July 20th, there have been no fewer than six articles and one editorial on the subject of the Town of Wallingford having possibly violated nine DEEP regulations either at a site on North Turnpike Road or at the Recycling Center. Then on July 24th, there was a front-page, above-the-fold story about an individual who has been running up against other regulations as he attempts to build an irrigation pond on his property on the east side of town.
In the case of the Town of Wallingford, the alleged violations are being treated as a crime against humanity. On the other hand, the gist of the story about the person building the pond is how unfair it is that this poor guy can’t do what he wants on his property.
When you put these two topics side by side, two primary points stand out. The first is that environmental regulation is a so dense, complex and pervasive that it is becoming a political tool. The other is that everyone - municipal governments, corporations and individuals alike - are becoming ensnared in this incredibly complex web.
Political tool: Okay, let me start out by stating, as we all must now, that I am all for a clean environment. I grew up in Waterbury when it was still the Brass Center of the World. The Naugatuck River changed colors several times as it flowed through the Naugatuck Valley from all the chemical discharge from the innumerable factories. It was bad. Acceptable practice at the time, but it was a mess nonetheless. We all now understand that despoiling the planet is bad business.
That said, however, don’t you think that perhaps a little common sense might be appropriate as we judge the severity of some of these violations? Okay, Public Works shouldn’t have dumped whatever solution it was at 91 North Turnpike Road, but why the ludicrous hullabaloo about whether a video of the stuff should be shown at an Inland Wetlands Commission meeting? And DEEP is going to beat up the Town because the sign at the recycling center says “Waste Oil” and not “Used Oil?” This is being trumpeted as a high crime? Really?
Complex web of regulations: In our bureaucratic zeal to atone for our past environmental sins and to show proper respect for the environment, government – overwhelmingly at the state and federal levels – has built layer upon layer upon layer of rules and regulations so all encompassing and inescapable that all of us are caught up in it.
But we can’t have it both ways. The laws may have been originally written to apply to correcting industrial and commercial abuses, but when they’re on the books, they must be applied evenhandedly to everyone. So Cytec spends millions and millions to mitigate their impact on the environment and people laud the government for getting after those nasty corporations. But when the same level of regulatory scrutiny is applied to some guy wanting to locate an irrigation pond on his property, we look upon that as bureaucratic nitpicking?
So the concern for our physical environment has altered our political environment.
We treat each environmental transgression, no matter how small, as if it were the BP oil spill. And we require so much environmental oversight that even attempting the most seemingly innocuous activity becomes a long and expensive undertaking.
Make no mistake. This is not a criticism of our local municipal commissions charged with enforcing all this stuff. They are just doing the job that our public officials in Hartford and Washington say we want. I’m just saying that we may be at the point where we are doing ourselves more harm than good, and we are damaging our politics and our economy in the process.
Or, as the cartoon character Pogo once famously said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.