County Seeks to Buy Indulgence, Avoid Doing Penance

In the medieval Catholic Church, indulgences were a way for sinners to literally buy forgiveness of sins. A dissident German monk named Martin Luther was very critical of the practice, considering it to be more of a commercial transaction than a real change of heart on the part of the sinner–an issue that he made very clear in his “Ninety-Five Theses.” That document sparked the Protestant Reformation, literally changing the course of history. Nearly five hundred years later, present-day critics regard “carbon credits” and “environmental offsets” to be the modern equivalent of such indulgences. Nonetheless, environmental sinners continue to seek absolution through such action.

This appears to be the case for Milwaukee County, whose sin was the release of asbestos fibers into the air during the demolition of the county courthouse annex two years ago. The Wisconsin Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the county, seeking fines in the amount of $30,000. Faced with doing that kind of penance, Milwaukee County is seeking to buy indulgence instead by installing bicycle racks on the city buses. Essentially, they are trying to atone for the sin of asbestos release by performing a “green” good deed that would (hopefully) encourage more commuters to use their bicycles rather than their automobiles.

On 7 February, the Milwaukee County Board voted to approve the idea by a 2 to 1 margin. The cost would initially be $650,000; an additional $110,000 would be required for maintenance and the loss of revenue generated by the placement of advertisements on the front of the buses. While this is considerably more than the $30,000 fine faced by the county, it is hoped that the cost of the bike racks can be covered through a combination of federal grants and private donations through fund-raising. The discovery of asbestos during the demolition project caused to price tag on the project to rise by nearly $1 million dollars. The private contractors on the project have already settled their liability with the state for $105,000. For a substance that was sold so cheaply, asbestos has proven to be very expensive… in more ways than one.