Better late than never. An old adage, but one that applies to Barnstable County’s overdue decision to end active use of the Fire Training Academy site in Barnstable. The Academy is suspected as being a source of perfluorinated compounds found in the Hyannis water supply. While the consumers of the water supply are protected by expensive water filtration, the site itself is still contaminated with the perfluorinated compounds included in the firefighting foam used throughout the country. Once in the soil, these compounds travel into the groundwater and are very stable, long lived and persistent contaminants. Suspension of the application of water at the site will slow the spread of the contamination until the sources can be cleaned up.

While the County has responded, albeit more slowly than we would have liked, there is an instructive lesson here that applies to all similar situations where government owned sites are the source of contamination. The Massachusetts hazardous waste law, known as 21E, applies the principle of joint and several liability in hazardous waste cases. In plain English, that means if both you and I contaminate a site, we are both fully and completely liable for the cleanup. That principle is an important one that holds everyone responsible for their mess, but it can have a distorting effect on behavior. Because of joint and several liability, owners of contaminated sites have an incentive to deny, deny and accuse. Owners start off by denying responsibility and then eventually, almost always, upon conceding some responsibility, point the finger at other potential sources as a way to increase the number of parties contributing to clean up costs. That whole process slows down the clean-up of any one site and can result in longer public exposure to contamination before final clean-up is implemented.

While the 21E process is designed to encourage private sector clean-up of contamination, the reality is that the public sector is often a responsible party. Isn’t it fair to expect government to behave better than the private sector when it comes to cleaning up its own mess and protecting the public it serves from exposure to hazardous waste for even one extra day? While the Fire Academy problem is finally being dealt with, we should all approach the next instance of a public agency being the source of contamination with the expectation that the first response will be immediate clean up. The wrangling over who else is to blame can come after the public and the environment have been protected.