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Environmental Balance:
Environmental Impacts

by John W. Norton, P.E., B.C.E.E.

What is meant when we refer to "Environmental Impacts?" Changes in the environment caused by mankind, only by mankind, are known as environmental impacts. While we note that volcanoes and naturally-caused forest fires bring about large changes in the natural environment, these are largely dismissed by definition; they are, after all, "natural."

Floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes cause obvious changes in our environment, but, again, they are natural. Earthquakes?, natural.

Only the activities of mankind seem to matter in the popular debate over environmental issues. Environmental impacts are generally those changes in the "natural world" that are caused by mankind in the course of living and working.

Environmental Factors

Several factors should impact environmental policy:

  • Type of pollution
  • Effect(s) of the pollution
    • On Human Health
    • On Wildlife
    • On Stream Quality
    • On neighborhood ambiance
  • Tools available to prevent the pollution
  • Cost of the control tool
  • Value of the avoidance of the pollution
  • Environmental cost of the avoidance of the pollution
  • Energy required for the pollution control tool selected
  • Appearances
  • Odor
  • Noise
  • Limited Economic Resources

At first, the cost of incremental improvements in these individual areas was given serious consideration. If a control technology was going to cost more than say $2,000 per ton to clean up a certain type of pollution, then typically the regulations would not require that that technology be used. The value level of the clean up required was actually based on calculations, however crudely established, of the value to the environment of preventing the next ton of that type pollution from being released.

In recent times, however, that relationship between cost and value has been seriously abused. With regard to the cost of certain new Clean Air Act Amendments adopted in 1992, for example, the USEPA noted that the cost of the proposed incinerator regulations was going to be at least twice the value of the environmental improvement.


Despite that analysis, USEPA recommended that the new regulations be adopted. This cost benefit ratio and recommendation is noted in the preamble of that legislation. The analysis that had resulted in the cost benefits ratio of "at least twice the value of the benefit" was already the result of stretching many points of analysis to the extreme limits of credulity.


None-the-less, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1992 were adopted, the cost of modern solid waste incineration was seriously increased, and new incineration construction stopped in the United States.

Landfill remains the number one disposal avenue in the Unites States. Over 85% of American waste is landfilled. Some waste is recycled, and some is composted. Some is avoided. But nothing can hide the fact that each year the total quantity of waste being landfilled in the United States increases. This is documented fact (documented by USEPA), despite ever higher claims of recycling and composting.

Most of the modern and developing world relies on the high tech solution to solid waste management, modern incineration, but here in America we continue to build ever larger landfills. They are much better landfills than they used to be, but the inescapable fact about landfills is that they do fill up, inexorably.


The emissions from landfills are far worse and more significant to the environment and to mankind than are the emissions from modern incinerators (even prior to the CAAA of 1992.) The emissions from the trucking required to get the solid waste to distant landfills are far worse than the emissions from modern incinerators. One old truth about incinerators is that the trucks waiting to unload are putting out more and worse pollution than the incinerator does in burning the trash all day long.

Every environmental decision has pros and cons, even the decision to do nothing.


Environmental Balance is important if mankind is truly to make the most of the earth inherited from its forefathers.

Every environmental choice has plusses and minuses. These should be dispassionately weighed by the best and the brightest so that society benefits to the maximum. All related plusses and minuses must be weighed, if the best decisions are to be made.

After a lifetime of engineering work, the author is mighty disappointed to find that many environmental issues are resolved by raw emotion and popularity polls, with little regard for the actual science of the matter.

The author chose engineering for his life's work because he wanted to apply science to improve the world. Instead, he has found the disgruntled, unqualified "Jon Doe" winning public environmental debates with emotional appeals and nonsense. Many times "Jon Doe" simply wants to keep anything new from being built "next door," with no regard for its worth to the community.

Anecdotes are often proffered as evidence during the heat of passionate public debate over new environmental processes. Such anecdotes, ("my father moved to Florida and died because he was living next to an incinerator") are intended to paint various environmental courses as unsafe, when in fact the anecdote may have almost no relationship to the situation cited, or the decision at hand. When specific anecdotal evidence is investigated, it often turns out that the "father" was elderly when he retired to Florida, that he smoked his entire life, that the incinerator "next door" was actually miles away with highways and exhaust pollution in between, that he lived there for years, and that he died of really old age.

Individual anecdotes should be disregarded during the debate over important environmental choices. Only soundly documented studies of all the factors involved in a similar situation should be weighed when such weighty matters are "before the board."

It is all too natural for potential neighbors to resist the implementation of any new environmental facility near their homes. It is all too natural for them to exaggerate their anecdotes in the process. Decision making boards must be on guard against such input if they hope to make the correct decisions.

It is the author's hope that this website can contribute to general public understanding of many environmental issues with which the author has worked over the years, and that some existing regulations and policies might be reexamined, reconsidered, and re-regulated to provide for a better future environment.

The author's intent is offering the best environmental balance advice available; the user is free to use it, although no guarantee can be implied. All user circumstances are unique and require individual analysis.

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