Friday, October 14, 2011
As I walked to work this morning and faced the daily army of well-intentioned campus employees blowing leaves, dust, and small bits of trash into my face and into the sewers that run to the river (likely in violation of the city's stormwater BMPs for its MS4 permit), I thought for the thousandth time about how much I despise leaf blowers. I also developed the opinion that leaf blowers perhaps represent all that is wrong in the world, at least from a pessimistic environmentalist's perspective. Then I thought, "But lots of people write about leaf blowers and how much they hate them, so why bother with yet another tirade?" Well, for one, it's personally satisfying to rant about these things. But if I'd considered this sooner and included it in my syllabus, I would have directed my Environmental Law students to produce photo documentation of campus employees blowing grass into sewers, write a report exploring the problem and presenting potential regulatory fixes, and deliver this report to the city council and campus leadership.
Here's how I would have presented leaf blowers to my students as a classic environmental problem that's difficult to fix: First, leaf blowing involves good people trying to do "good" things (keeping yards neat, supporting neighborhood property values) while also creating negative externalities. Second, as good people do "good" things, the trend catches on. Loud, dust- and pollution-belching machines turn on all over the city at 9 AM on Saturday. And as everyone does it, regulation becomes more difficult.
If we look solely to the problem of debris blown into sewers (ignoring the criteria pollutant emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, and noise pollution from leaf blowers, for example), do we try to control every source--the millions of homeowners and business employees dragging out their lawn equipment every day? And do we regulate or follow an alternative path? We could try education. As the City of Tulsa recently did, we could send residents pamphlets telling them to stop blowing things into the sewers--knowing that most homeowners likely will throw away the pamphlets before reading them. (We also could bring psychology into it and include a graphic photo of a dead fish and ugly algae on the pamphlet, thus showing the effects in a more understandable form and not just telling people to stop doing something.) But what about delegation--the fact that many homeowners and business owners don't know that they are blowing things into the sewer because they have hired someone else to groom the yard? The employee likely never received the pamphlet, or if she did, she may not have read or understood it. Even if she did read and understand it, she'll likely ignore it. It's exceedingly easy to blow grass clippings, leaves, and stray dirt into the sewer--much easier than bagging it up and hauling it off. Labeling may be harder to ignore. Requiring the leaf blower manufacturer to paste on the machine a bright orange tag with a picture and bold letters--"Don't blow debris into the sewer!"--might send a message that's tougher to ignore but still not foolproof.
The city could educate and regulate and enforce each source, banning leaf blowers or sending out police or code inspectors to ticket people found blowing things into sewers. We all know how "easy" this type of enforcement is and how well these sorts of things go over--particularly when everyone's doing it. ("Did you hear that the city actually fined Bob the other day for taking care of his lawn? I thought we lived in a free country, but I guess I was wrong.") Better yet, how about federal regulation? The EPA could swoop in and tell Tulsa that it's violating its MS4 permit. Now that would be a popular solution.
Students might give up on controlling individual sources and move to the downstream technology option--requiring better screens on curb openings or treatment of surface runoff prior to its entry into the river. Then we'd have a budgetary struggle, with bankrupt cities explaining that they can't even fund the schools, let alone billions of dollars in treatment technologies. Plus, we might have to agree on the best technologies and their availability, consider non-water effects of the treatment, and modify every city permit.
Knowing students, they'd come up with creative fixes and complete a brilliant report solving these classic environmental problems. Maybe I'll try this next year. And by the way, the first source to which I'll point my students will be Dave Owen's stormwater post. I agree that stormwater is "really, really interesting"--especially when you add leaf blowers to the mix.