21 Questions for 2020: #7

7. How can we best help Mother Nature to heal herself from the desecrations of the Industrial Revolution? 

This question hit home for me in the past week, as local officials announced plans for dredging the Housatonic River, which runs through the heart of Berkshire County, MA, where I live, and creating a 20-acre toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood in the town of Lee, MA. 

Like so many other rivers across the country and the world, the Housatonic River was polluted with PCBs by industry—in this case, General Electric (GE), during its heyday as a manufacturer of electrical transformers. 

The river has been remarkably resilient—I see bald eagles, blue herons and many kinds of waterfowl there all the time. But the PCBs buried in the sediment remain a potent carcinogenic hazard, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ruled must be cleaned up.

At a recent informational meeting, an EPA official talked dispassionately about the “biota” that would be destroyed through the dredging. As he spoke, I had visions of the frogs, fish and crayfish sleeping quietly at the bottom of the river, not knowing that soon the steel jaws of giant machines would be coming to take them away. 

The EPA’s argument, which has been accepted by town officials, is that it is necessary to disrupt and essentially kill the river in order to clean it. Once the PCB-laden mud is out of the river bottom, they say, things will get back to normal. 

But under the EPA plan, the people of Lee will have to accept a dangerous new normal: a toxic waste site the size of five football fields, 20 feet deep, rising 50 feet high, holding up to a million cubic yards of contaminated soil, right in the residential neighborhood of Lenox Dale.

Local folks are especially angry that they were not given a chance to vote on this solution. It was presented as a done deal, although there will now be a period of public comment. There is a movement afoot to bring a vote to the town meetings, which could send the negotiators back to the table. 

What are the larger issues here? 

1. No one trusts the good intentions of the EPA. Especially in the Trump era, the EPA has become the handmaiden of industries with terrible records of environmental assault. Why should we trust them when they promise that the dredging won’t result in airborne PCBs, or that the plastic-lined toxic waste dump won’t leak poison into the groundwater?

2. People trust the good intentions of GE even less. This is the same company that created a toxic waste dump for PCBs right alongside an elementary school in its hometown of Pittsfield MA, which has been plagued with cancer since the mid-20th century, as the PCBs came home to roost in people’s bodies. After having built up Pittsfield as a factory town and carelessly disposing of toxic waste in the county river, GE decamped around the turn of the 21st century, and has spent millions in resisting the responsible clean-up of its poisonous leavings.

3. Shipping to a toxic waste site in another state is NIMBYism, no doubt about it; I can’t whole-heartedly support that solution, although it does seem obvious that a dump should not be located in a heavily populated area like central Berkshire County, which is economically reliant on its appeal as a scenic tourist destination.  

4. If the towns were to appeal this decision in the courts, it is possible that an even worse solution would be mandated. Would the anti-environmental Trump courts and EPA accept GE’s initial proposal of three toxic dumps in residential neighborhoods, instead of one big one? Full disclosure: one of those three was proposed for a beautiful patch of riverside forest, just a few blocks from my house—almost literally in my backyard. 

The case of the Housatonic River clean-up is a microcosm of similar issues all over the world, as we the people of the 21st century grapple with the damages wrought by 20th century industries. There are some important lessons to be learned here. 

1. We have to think of future generations in everything we undertake.

Yes, “GE brought good things to life” as it created its lightbulbs and transformers. But it did not sufficiently account for all the bad side effects it was also creating, such as PCBs. It flushed them down the river, like so many other New England factories and mills, without understanding the longterm effects of these chemicals on the ecosystem. Going forward, we have to insist that industry be more careful—for example, with fracking, one of the huge chemical scourges of the 21st century.

2. It is always best to work with Mother Nature rather than against her.

Why aren’t EPA officials paying more heed to the possibility of cleaning the river sediments with bioremediation techniques? There are many promising test cases of bacteria or fungi that can “eat” and neutralize hazardous chemicals, without harming the “biota” of the river—a dispassionate scientific term for the fish, frogs, birds, insects and plants that call the river home.

Human beings are so intelligent. We have or can create solutions to every problem we face today—solutions that will not, like a plastic-lined toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood, end up causing as many problems as they purport to solve. 

Past generations did not realize the harm they were inflicting on innocent wildlife and people as industry grew in the 20th century. We are now reaping the results of that shortsighted negligence, and we can’t claim ignorance anymore. 

We know the harm these chemicals wreak. We owe it to ourselves and future generations, human and more-than-human, to clean up our act—and do it right.

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jennifer. The bureaucrats who suggest dredging are once again using a colonialization “warfare” mindset: kill it so it can be better. Nature has been actively healing itself in the Housatonic River for many years. It makes me want to cry out in despair at the lack of expanded consciousness contained in the thinking and so-called, “solutions” being brought forward. I hope for the people in Berkshire County’s sake that this “done deal” gets a second look. Because as you say, there are less invasive and destructive measures available now.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  February 24, 2020

      Thanks so much, Jennifer! We are working on it. We certainly won’t accept a toxic landfill in a residential neighborhood without a major attempt at resistance.

      Reply

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