Another Way to Look at the Costs of Erosion and Sedimentation

Jan. 1, 2004
IECA and others in the erosion control industry have tackled the problem of finding the real costs of accelerated erosion in various contexts, from taking a sweeping look at the aggregate costs to a society of erosion-related problems to calculating specific costs of ESC materials used on certain types of projects. (See, for example, the article “How Much Does Erosion and Sediment Control for DOT Projects Cost?” in the January/February 2003 issue). One way to look at the costs of ESC is to consider the “externalized costs,” as Tachi Kiuchi, the former CEO of Mitsubishi Electric America, noted in a recent talk to members of the United States Green Building Council. Externalized costs usually are explained this way: Companies are concerned with the price buyers pay for their products-whether the product is a pair of shoes or a car or a new home-and also are concerned with the profit and loss statements their shareholders see at the end of the quarter. Conveniently those companies often don’t take into account costs that are passed along to others-the part the consumers don’t pay for directly but for which someone eventually has to foot the bill.Kiuchi is also a founder of The Future 500, a group striving to promote sustainable industry and sound environmental practices, and he notes that the externalized costs of erosion and sedimentation-as well as those of air pollution-are some of the most pervasive and yet the hardest to pin down. Examples of externalized costs have been cited for many different types of industry. In relation to erosion and sedimentation, they include damage to the environment (the loss of habitat and the expense of cleaning up a sediment-filled stream after a developer carelessly manages an upstream project, perhaps); social problems (such as the loss of jobs when fishermen can no longer ply their trade in polluted waters, as happened on the Hudson River in the 1960s, eventually leading to the founding of the Riverkeeper watchdog organization); and health problems caused or worsened by air and water pollution-usually much harder to track down to a single source. There’s a growing movement to stop companies from passing along these costs. Company shareholders might not even be aware of them, Kiuchi points out-but stakeholders in the larger community certainly are.One way of recouping some of the costs already externalized is through penalties and taxes. Sweden has started to figure externalized costs-for pollution cleanup and health care, among other things-into its national budget. And of course one way to head off new costs is through regulations that govern how companies can do business. Arguably the Clean Water Act itself was predicated on turning externalized costs back to the companies that polluted surface waters and to their customers. But the regulations come with their own price tags of a different sort for implementation and enforcement. Knowing where sensibly to draw the line is the challenge. What are we willing to pay for, and when are we willing to pay it? In the field of ESC-as in other areas-it seems obvious that dealing with the problem after the fact is far more expensive than preventing it. IECA and the ESC industry have long been working with every type of entity involved in earthmoving activities-corporations, state and local agencies, builders, contractors, and developers-helping them avoid these costs as painlessly as possible, and helping all of us to avoid paying them eventually.