Job opening: Environmental Steward

by Steve Harrison

While the recent coal ash spill into the Dan River has sparked much controversy and conversations about both the effectiveness of environmental regulations and the hitor-miss enforcement of such, those of us who have been following these issues for years may be found guilty of taking this public exposure with a grain of salt. In our defense, the public at-large has demonstrated their propensity to forget. They forget the hard-fought battles to reign in the industrial pollution that ravaged our air and water just a few decades ago, and they forget the horrific cancer-clusters and birth defects that crushed the hopes of families in communities like Love Canal. And I fear they will also forget the 70 mile stretch of the Dan River that has been poisoned.

Why do they forget? I’ve had this conversation with several friends in the environmental community, and I’m pretty sure many people reading this will not like our conclusions. It’s not a lack of concern that drives this forgetfulness, it’s a lack of responsibility. Or more accurately, a desire to not be held responsible.

The things that poison our air and water are not “evil” in nature or something that attacks us from outside our society. They are the byproducts of our desire to be comfortable, stimulated and entertained.

We revel in our toasty-warm and well-lit houses, taking long, hot showers and curling up in front of our monstrous flatscreen televisions. Not only do we waste energy like drunken sailors, we waste many other things, as well. If that truck doesn’t come by every week to magically disappear all our refuse, pretty soon it’s a problem. And we laugh when we talk about how slow our old computers were, even the one we just replaced a few years ago. But where are those old computers?

They are likely degrading and decomposing in a landfill somewhere, maybe as far away as Cote d’Ivoire, releasing toxins and heavy metals into the local water table.

I don’t want to belabor the point, because environmentalists have an unfortunate habit of wagging our fingers at people when we should be encouraging them to take part in the movement. But I think it’s important for us to admit that we are all part of the problem, and as such we must all be part of the solution. And here’s the really important part: you don’t have to be a scientist to join this effort. As a matter of fact, many environmental problems are brought to light by people with little or no scientific background. Such as Karen Schroeder and Lois Gibbs.

Looking back on the Love Canal tragedy, it’s hard to imagine this issue would be difficult to expose. Extremely high concentrations of birth defects in babies, multiple acquired afflictions in older children that screamed of an environmental culprit, high levels of benzene and other carcinogens in adults, and the list goes on. Even after rusty barrels of chemicals started rising above the surface in residents’ back yards, Occidental Petroleum and local government officials stubbornly fought to keep from having to take responsibility for the nightmare. But these two ladies fought even harder, and eventually the Federal government paid to move most of those families away from the danger.

But one of the more depressing parts of this story is this: many of the people these two mothers had to fight were their own neighbors. Neighbors who were also suffering from the contamination. Some of them were concerned about their property values dropping due to increased media exposure of the contamination, but others simply didn’t want to know. Or were naturally skeptical about people “with a cause” who carry signs and such.

STAFF: ‘Why do they forget?’

Fast-forward almost four decades later, and there are more sick children, and more mothers desperately seeking answers, this time in a small community near Asheville, North Carolina. When Lee Ann Smith’s son Gabe was diagnosed with an aggressive form of thyroid cancer, which soon spread to his lymph nodes, she just assumed it was the luck of the draw. Plus she was too busy trying to save his life to contemplate causality. But when her younger son Blaise complained about his leg hurting and an MRI revealed a bone tumor that by all rights shouldn’t be there, she began to suspect that it wasn’t bad luck behind these problems, but an environmental culprit. She began to poke around, and soon discovered she lived less than a mile away from an EPA Superfund site, where thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals were dumped and never cleaned up. In addition to cyanide, hexavalent chromium and vinyl chloride, the usual suspect trichloroethylene (see Camp LeJeune cancer-cluster) was in abundance in the local water table.

Some fifty cases of lymphatic cancer have been documented in this small community, and one man has lost nine family members to it. But even with all the overwhelming evidence the CTS site was killing off the local population, very little has been done to clean it up or provide assistance to the people affected.

Why haven’t you heard about this?

That’s a good question, thank you for asking. First off, as horrible as this story is, it’s a “local problem.” Do we know anybody that lives there? Anyone famous? Nah. There’s no story there. Secondly, it’s entirely possible that you have heard about it, but when you noticed the EPA already has this site listed, you had a made-to-order excuse to forget the problem existed.

“Taken care of.” As in, I don’t need to worry about this. So once again, a mother finds herself fighting a battle on her own. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The bottom line is, as a society, we are not psychologically prepared to grasp the significance of threats to our environment. Only a small fraction of us seem to “get it,” and that simply must change, if we are to muster the political will to keep our state a safe place to live and raise a family. Thank you for being interested enough to finish reading this. While I have your attention, I want you to write yourself a note and stick it on your fridge: “It’s my job, too.” You’ll know what it means when you read it a few months from now.

– The writer lives in Gibsonville. !