Risks of Hazardous Waste Sites versus Asteroid and Comet Impacts: Accounting for the Discrepancies in U.S. Resource Allocation



Approximately $6 billion is spent annually in the United States on the cleanup of sites regulated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund). The current health risks posed by such sites are thought to be quite small; the expenditures are justified primarily as protecting hypothetical future residents of these sites. Approximately 0.05% of this amount, or $3 million, is spent annually by the U.S. government on the detection of asteroids or comets that could strike the earth. Such damaging impacts do occur from time to time — most recently in 1908 in an unpopulated region of Siberia — but no person is confirmed ever to have died as a result. Anticipated impacts over the course of 1 million years would yield deaths that, when annualized, total approximately 4,000 per year. The risk reduction goal for CERCLA is 15 orders of magnitude greater than that for asteroid/comet detection. A modest increase in resources devoted to asteroid detection would greatly increase the chances of early detection of a threatening object, allowing an effective defense to be attempted. This article argues that the much lower risk-to-resources ratio for CERCLA cleanups than for asteroid and comet detection can be explained by four primary factors: (1) the regard for future generations, since CERCLA benefits mainly the unborn; (2) concrete fears, since toxics are much more feared than asteroids or comets; (3) the source of the threat, since toxic contamination is caused by human beings, unlike impacts from space objects; and (4) the greater political constituencies for hazardous waste cleanup than for space object detection.