Swamp fever

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Seventeen years after General Robert E Lee surrendered the Confederate armies at Appomattox Courthouse and ended the American Civil War, a creosote factory opened in Louisiana. And this week a London investment bank agreed to pay several million dollars to the US government to have the site of the factory dredged and cleaned.

The story goes like this: in 1882 the Alabama, New Orleans, Texas and Pacific Junction Railways Company was building a wooden bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, north-east of New Orleans. As I have discovered from my own gardening experience, wooden structures (deckchairs, coffee tables, bridges) if left outdoors get wet and rot, unless they are protected. So the company needed creosote and lots of it. They built their factory at a place called Bayou Bonfouca and made the stuff themselves. Years passed, world wars were fought, and the railroad was taken over by a bank, which was absorbed into another bank, which in turn was eventually bought by the Fleming American Investment Trust (of Great Britain).

By now the original site of the works was slap-bang in the centre of the town of Slidell (pop 26,718). And Slidellians found their water was contaminated with creosote residue. Slidell Working Against Major Pollution (Swamp) was set up, and the town soon became number 1,006 on the American list of hazardous waste sites.

Someone, however, had to pay - and, presumably, an enterprising bureaucrat, clearing out a filing cabinet in a damp federal basement one day, uncovered the chain of ownership. Thus did Fleming end up with the bill.

Consider the implications of this case. As it happens, the house I live in was built in the same year as the creosote factory. Like many neighbouring houses it was constructed without foundations on top of London clay. Now it is having to be underpinned. Who might I sue? Well, at the top of the list are the unfortunate descendants of the original builder, probably dispersed between Moonie Ponds, Palm Springs and Leytonstone. Not much hope here, I feel. It is hard enough to sue a builder for installing a lavatory upside down last month, let alone for an error committed in 1882.

But what about previous owners of the house, who failed to get it underpinned? Ignorance can be no excuse; the Cajun creosoters of old Louisiana almost certainly had no idea they were buggering up the bayou. Maybe I can get some dosh out of my predecessors.

And why stop there? In an era of genealogists, all spending every spare moment scouring parish and registry records for ancestors, forebears and bloodlines, just about everybody is now traceable: the relatives of the Luftwaffe pilot who flattened the buildings around St Paul's, of the architect who rebuilt them, of the baker whose negligence caused the great fire in Pudding Lane and other vandals.

And what of the future? In the year 3000 Zarg Marshall, grandson to the power of 20 of the former nuclear chief, Lord Marshall, may find himself beamed into the dock of the Intergalactic Court of Environmental Justice and fined a squillion Blairs for depositing all those rods under the Cairngorms. Good, eh?

Alas, as they say on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain, what goes around, comes around. The problem is that you could as easily be sued as sue. For example, any surviving offshoots of the Muskahohams, the tribe that inhabited the area where Slidell now stands, might well take the present- day townspeople (including all those concerned Swamp members) for every dime as compensation for loss of amenities. In Europe or Asia, if your surname happens to be "Khan" or "The Hun", you could be in dead lumber.

Which is why canny nations, such as ours, have always had laws to allow us to slough off our responsibilities. One of the earliest, Magna Carta, specifically states that a baron's widow shall not be liable to pay off his debt to the Jews. So that's the last time I lend a fiver to an impecunious duke.