At the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima or Why Political Questions Are Not All Economic

Lewiston, New York, a well-to-do community near Buffalo, is the site of the Lake Ontario Ordinance Works, where the federal government, years ago, disposed of residues from the Manhattan Project. These radioactive wastes are buried but not forgotten by the residents, who say that when the wind is southerly, radon gas blows through the town. Several parents at a conference I attended described their terror on learning that cases of leukemia had been found among area children. They feared for their own lives as well. At the other side of the table, officials from New York State and local corporations said these fears were unfounded. Those who smoke take greater risks than those who live near waste disposal sites. An official said that rational decisions depended on measuring the costs and benefits of alternatives in terms of the amounts people would pay to obtain them or demand to accept them. This increased the parents' resentment and frustration.

The official told the townspeople that risks they casually accept -for example, by drinking alcohol or by crossing the street - were greater than the risks associated with the buried radioactive residues. He argued that the waste facility brought enough income and employment into the town to compensate for any hazards the residents might face. They remained unimpressed by his estimate of their "willingness to pay" for safety; his risk-benefit analysis left them cold. They did not see what economic theory had to do with the ethical questions they raised. They wanted to talk about the manipulation of information and the distribution of power in our society. They did not care to be lectured about willingness to pay, costs, and benefits.

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