Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'm not an environmentalist, but ...

I've discovered that I say this phrase a lot:

"I'm not an environmentalist, but I prefer walking to burning gas in a car."

"I'm not an environmentalist, but I think that if you cut down a tree, you'd better be using the wood."

"I'm not an environmentalist, but factory farming upsets me and I would like to see more pasture-based farming."

"I'm not an environmentalist, but I believe in wasting as little as possible."

I don't even say "I'm not a tree-hugger" because ... well ... it's kind of comforting to hug trees. Surely I'm not the only person who has done this? Trees are just so ... huggable. Please don't laugh.

Maybe it's time for me to stop prefacing my statements for fear of sounding like some extreme Greenpeace type, and just say, "I believe in being a good steward of the environment." Because, well, I do. I don't think we're just trespassers on this earth, but I also don't think we are owners. We're stewards -- renters. We should care for it the way we would care for someone's home if we were housesitting -- not like frat boys trashing a beach house on spring break. It's simply good manners to take care of the earth, so that people who come after us can enjoy it too.

Anyway, this was brought to mind recently by our house search. You know how I'd mentioned we'd found a nice house? We did, and we're still waiting to hear back from the seller's bank whether our bid was approved. I know some people who live near there, and asked if there was anything we should know about. They sent me this.

It's a long report, so I'll summarize. In the 1930's, a synthetic textiles plant was built in our area. It produced rayon, nylon, and other similar materials. During World War II, it produced needed textiles for the war effort. In the 80's, it produced materials for the space program.

Synthetic textiles manufacture uses a lot of toxic chemicals. At first, there were no specific regulations as to what could be done with the plant's various wastes. Later, the plant was a big violator of environmental regulations. It dumped contaminated water into the Shenandoah, buried toxic slurry in unlined pits, and billowed toxic gases. There were even deaths of employees due to insufficient safety measures (i.e. no gas masks provided in parts of the plant with carbon disulfide, a very toxic chemical).

The company was threatened with heavy fines for its pollution, and eventually went out of business, saying it could not find a way to comply with all the regulations. But it was bailed out by several federal agencies, including NASA and the Air Force, because they needed its products. This was right at the end of the 80's -- not long ago. Once they had produced a stockpile for the government suppliers, they again went out of business -- leaving a vast amount of cleanup to be done and no one to do it:

"Meanwhile, 60 acres and several stories of decaying plant, were steeped with acids, mercury, lead, PCB’s, asbestos, contaminated with carbon disulfide, a yellowish explosive material that causes nerve damage; hills of coal ash, moonscape-like land created by waste sulfides; and 200 acres of chemically loaded lagoons and sludge pools right on the bank of the river remained unattended." (from link above)

No one could fish in the Shendandoah because of contamination with PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) which are highly toxic. Chemicals had leeched from the plant's disposal pits into the water table, causing the local inhabitants wells to produce water that “smelled like sulfur and looked like weak tea." The river was contaminated; land across the river became contaminated as well, as the owner alleged when he sued for damages -- as property intended to be developed as residential became worthless. An area where previously people had moved to get jobs at the factory became a place no one wanted to live.

In the twenty years since this time, significant cleanup has been done, paid for by a variety of corporations and government entities that had connections to the original company. The money it's costing to clean up the area is vast. The temptation is to cut costs, and I can only hope they are not cutting corners as well. As recently as last year, I read that a town hall meeting was held in our would-be neighborhood asking the residents to approve a plan to simply seal off leaking waste basins rather than removing all the contents, for a saving of tens of millions of dollars. Supposedly this is just as safe, but I confess myself unconvinced.

I asked a friend of mine who lives there whether she thinks it is a bad idea to move there. She asked for the specific neighborhood and then said, "Oh, no, all the huge cancer rates are south of town." Yes, inhabitants of the region get cancer at significantly higher rates than other places. Hardly a surprise -- there's such a chemical soup in the area, it's hard to say what might be causing it. My friend's only other remark was, "I'd drink bottled water, though -- the water's treated but it still tastes nasty from all the chemicals they treat it with." Nice.

This whole revelation was very shocking to me. I come from the Northwest, where you can't toss an apple core out your car window without people getting on your case. And you had better be sorting your recycling! We just don't deal with this kind of pollution. Big cities complain if it happens near them, too -- one of the big complaints about this plant was that it's "100 miles upstream from the water supply intakes for the nation's Capitol." However, just because an area is less densely populated doesn't mean that it doesn't matter if you pollute it. Northern Virginia is a lovely place, filled with history, charming people, vineyards, and an active tourist industry. People settle there to stay -- they don't want to leave where they live, even when it becomes polluted. The area is not wealthy, but that, of course, should have no bearing on anything. They deserve to live healthy lives like everyone else.

It reminds me of West Virginia and other coal-mining areas. In order to produce coal for the nation, a few lower-class people risk coal dust inhalation, cave-ins, and other dangers. They do it because it's a way to get a job in an economically depressed area, but the risks are high. The rest of us are willing to pay for them to do it because it allows us to live a certain lifestyle. But most people don't know (or want to know) the details of what areas are being destroyed or contaminated, or whose health is being put at risk, for various products they consume.

The part that makes me angriest is that the federal government stepped in to bail this company out, even though they knew it was not in compliance with regulations, because they needed what it produced. Without the rayon the factory was making, they wouldn't be able to mold the noses of the space shuttles -- or of certain missiles. It was called a "matter of national security." Keep in mind, this was right at the end of the Cold War, in 1988. It bothers me that people in our government thought that contamination of an entire region, through the dumping of mercury, lead, arsenic, PCB's, and more, was an acceptable cost. The people of the Shenandoah Valley were not asked or informed.

Maybe the people behind the decision, like the people running the factory, didn't think. They thought of what they were doing as comparable to throwing an apple core out the window. It's ugly for awhile, but it eventually breaks down and no harm is done. The outdoors is a big place, the mercury should spread out, right? People aren't really thinking that "the outdoors" happens to be where other people are living. Or that gathering up molecules of mercury and lead once you've scattered them about is harder than putting the feathers back in a pillow. Yet even a very low level of these chemicals is very toxic.

In any event, the whole thing gets my goat. I thought I was living in modern America, where we're careful about what we put into the environment, and that I could plant a garden and eat the crops without worrying about mercury and lead. I try not to be a germophobe, and I like walking barefoot and eating snow, but I am afraid of chemical poisons, so I will forgo those pleasures if I have to. I just don't want to have to.

I had no idea the production of synthetic fabrics was so toxic. It makes me want to wear only cotton. But I know cotton uses a lot of pesticides which are probably in someone else's back yard. Why can't people be more careful? Why do we spend a ton of money and effort deriving chemicals out of nature, and then go and dump them back into nature, where they won't break down?

I don't believe in heavy government regulation, but I do believe the government has the right to protect all of us from pollution. I don't believe animals have immortal souls or that trees have rights, but I want to preserve animals and trees for all of us to enjoy. I want things to be taken from the environment only as needed, and replaced as possible. I want there to be wild lands where we can all go.

Is that really so much to ask?


Fidelio said...

It doesn't have to be a big company--we only drink bottled water here, because of a little mom-and-pop dry cleaner's that was in business for 40 years, quietly burying their used treatment chemicals (no one knew any better at the time) in regular old 50-gallon drums along the north edge of the creek.

The contaminated wells are sealed and the water supposedly safe, but I refuse to drink it.

Anonymous said...

I like your new blog look!

I totally agree with you and I've said the same line before too! "I'm not an environmentalist, but..."

Sheila said...

Fidelio -- yikes! I guess this is more common than I knew about!

44socks -- clicked over to your blog, and it looks like you are exactly the same kind of parent as me! Only, of course, five kids ahead. Someday ...

Anyway, I subscribed and am now clicking around reading stuff. I like what I see. :)

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

Whoa! That's truly frightening.

Excellent post, I agree. A distant, far-off goal of mine is to transition to a much more natural lifestyle - more organics, more shopping from small businesses, fewer disposables and oil-derived products and packaging. It seems so huge an ordeal. But I think we're all up to it if we give it a shot. Every little bit helps. Changing to cloth menstrual pads from disposables was a big step for me!

Sheila said...

A big goal for me is just to buy less. With Walmart producing so much cheap stuff, we could afford to buy more than we do, but I don't think it would make us "live better." If we're likely to throw it away a year from now, it's better not to buy it in the first place.

Then, when I have more money, I can buy more organic and local stuff. For now, environmentalism only wins out when it's partnered with frugality.

Sarah Faith said...

Sheila, thanks for subscribing! :) I'll see you around there, maybe.

Kevin Jenne' said...

"I come from the Northwest ... We just don't deal with this kind of pollution."

Sounds like a nice place to live. :)

Sheila said...

Oh, that's you? I never found your blog under your usual profile, so I thought you didn't have one! I do try to visit my usual commenters' blogs, so sorry I missed you till now.

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