West Virginia State University has filed a lawsuit against Dow Chemical Company, alleging that a Dow plant polluted water beneath the school. University president Anthony Jenkins explained the rationale behind the suit, saying that, “while there is no threat to the health, wellness or safety to the students, faculty and staff, Dow contamination of our campus has potentially adversely impacted the brand.” And while fights for clean drinking water in Flint and Standing Rock have been uphill, the legal system may take this case seriously: someone’s brand is at stake.
Chemical companies facing lawsuits for contaminating water is pretty much inarguably a good thing, so in that sense, WVSU has right on their side. And even if the levels of contaminants aren’t dangerous for humans, it would still suck to get a reputation as “that school with the toxic sludge beneath it.”
But holding companies accountable to environmental protections is tricky to do, and it rarely benefits those most affected by the wrongdoing. Take this old-ass article from Salon about the true story that inspired the movie Erin Brockovich. The film’s titular character successfully sues a company that’s been polluting the water in Hinkley, CA, winning payouts for the townsfolk. The reality is a little more complicated, though.
But many plaintiffs in the Hinkley case say the movie misrepresents what happened. Far from being the populist victory the movie depicts, the Hinkley lawsuit was a case study in how the rise of private arbitration, as an alternative to costly public trials, is creating a two-tiered legal system that not only favors litigants who can afford it over those who cannot, but is open to potential conflicts of interest and cronyism. The case never went to trial, because Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility accused of polluting Hinkley, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed to private arbitration before a panel of for-hire judges, some of whom had socialized with the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Flint couldn’t get the city and state to deliver bottled water in their settlement, and the Dakota Access Pipeline is still being pushed. It seems that even national attention isn’t enough to save you from contaminated water if you don’t already have access to high-priced lawyers.
And that’s why I’m wary about the WVSU case. Without doubt, the school has legitimate grievances, and I’d like to think America has enough moral bandwidth to care about Flint and Standing Rock as well as WVSU. But it looks like even well-intentioned environmental protections can end up helping profits more than people.
(Painting of "River." Courtesy of Joy Garnett)