When oil kills a pelican, or mercury poisons the eggs of a kingfisher, whose birds have been killed?
The answer is that, like the wetlands that nurture our fish, the groundwater that slakes our thirst, the shellfish we eat, and the deer some people like to shoot, birds legally are considered to be yours. Whether the bird is eaten by a hunter, observed by an avid birdwatcher, or listened to by a poet in the park who doesn’t know a pelican from a kingfisher, birds are natural resources that belong to everyone, and their value to society can be translated into dollars.
A federal law enacted in 1981 in response to the Love Canal disaster, called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or “Superfund,” allows government agencies to clean up badly polluted sites and to make the polluters pay. Taxes levied on polluting industries, as well as taxpayer dollars, help cover the costs when the polluters have gone out of business or cannot be identified.
As part of this process, a Natural Resource Damage Assessment is carried out, to identify which resources were damaged and taken from you by the polluter. This resource could be your future opportunity to go fishing — lost after fish in a river become too toxic to eat. Or it could be something less obvious, such as the ability of river barges to bring you goods when pesticide-polluted sediment prevents safe dredge. Every time I go out birding, I am seeking to enjoy some of our most beautiful natural resources. A company that spills oil or dumps mercury into a river may be taking an avian resource from me, but how do I get it back? Federal and state wildlife agencies, as well as tribal governments, are among those that serve as trustees for the lost birds, and they do so by cooperating with, or taking to court, polluters.
A Natural Resource Damage Assessment for avian resources should first determine how many of each species of bird are present at a polluted site, which ones are exposed to the pollutant through their food, and how much “injury” each has suffered. Injury could be outright death, or a proportion of embryos that were too deformed to hatch out of the egg, or more subtle effects of the pollutant that reduce the amount of ecological services the bird could provide. Ecological services are all the benefits that the ecosystem, particularly humans, enjoys during the life of the bird. For example, every time you are thrilled to the sight of a hummingbird in your garden, you are enjoying an ecological service provided by a bird.
But there’s more! The hummingbird also polls your flowers, another service. Hummingbird nests are held together with laboriously gathered spider webs, which you then no longer need to clean from your windows. Every time a hummingbird defecates it fertilizes your garden — a small but very frequent contribution. And when it meets its demise, it becomes a meal for another member of the ecosystem that you may enjoy, such as a praying mantis or an owl. Obviously, accounting for all of these ecological services is nearly impossible, and so the loss of a hummingbird resource is best paid for with a new hummingbird.
Once a Natural Resource Damage Assessment is done, the trustees determine how much it would cost to replace the lost birds with new ones that did not already exist, for example, by tearing out an abandoned parking lot and turning it into a forest park. Polluters pay these costs in a settlement, or after losing in court, and in so doing they replace the bird resources that they took from the American people. Superfund is a powerful law that, with continued congressional funding, can bring back some of the birds we have lost to pollution.
Dan Cristol teaches in the biology department at William & Mary and can be contacted at email@example.com. To discover local birding opportunities visit http://williamsburgbirdclub.org/