You are browsing the archive for Pollution.

Lewis Lapham: The Ocean as Desert

7:02 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A conglomeration of plastic bags & other garbage in the ocean.

Floating "garbage patch" islands are just one of many ways humans have hurt the oceans.

As a boy, I was forbidden what were then called “horror comics.”  So, of course, with the first purloined dime I could get my hands on, during a vacation when I was eight or nine, I snuck into the local store and bought the grisliest looking one I could find.  Predictably, it scared the hell out of me.  I still remember the story — or one of them anyway — about a little boy who went swimming in the ocean, was dragged under the water by a race of reptilian creatures, grew scales, and never returned to humanity.  I can also remember being on the beach that summer and my mother urging me, “Tommy, go ahead, go in the water.”  I was hesitating on the shoreline, worrying about the actual crabs that I knew were out there somewhere, waiting to spot my tasty toes, and then of course that reptilian crew I had no doubt were also lurking just beyond the first small waves of Long Island Sound, preparing to drag me to my fate.

So don’t tell me I don’t know the dangers of this planet’s waters.  I do.  They remain alive in my mind more than six decades later.  I’m now a swimmer, but take me out of the pool and put me in open water of any sort, even a pond or a lake, and it doesn’t take long before I can sense the Great White (thank you, Jaws!), the massive anaconda, or the more prosaic giant snapping turtle heading my way.  Yes, I know the stats on shark deaths off the U.S. (essentially zero).  Yes, I know it’s irrational.  But what can you do?

These days, we also know that the ways the inhabitants of the waters of the world can attack us are far less fearful than the ways we continue to attack them, or perhaps simply the ways we use those waters as if they were a vast sewer system into which we dump the overflow, material and chemical, from our world.  The increasing overfishing, acidification, and garbage-ification of the planet’s waters is a disturbing development.  As ever, versatile TomDispatch regular Lewis Lapham focuses on a new subject, those planetary waters, about which he once again turns out to know more than the rest of us combined.  He catches the dreams, the glories, the fears, the fantasies, and the modern nightmares involving the seven seas in his introduction to the summer issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly.  As always, that magazine unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.)  TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

The (Less Than) Eternal Sea
The Poet’s Metaphor and the Styrofoaming of the Waters
By Lewis Lapham

[This essay will appear in "The Sea," the Summer 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

In heavy fog on the night of October 7, 1936, the SS Ohioan ran aground three miles south and west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and by noon on October 8th, I was among a crowd of spectators come to pay its respects to the no small terror of the sea. I was two years old, hoisted on the shoulders of my father, for whom the view to windward was neither openly nor latently sublime. The stranded vessel, an 8,046-ton freighter laden with a cargo valued at $450,000, was owned by the family steamship company of which my father one day was to become the president, and he would have been counting costs instead of looking to the consolations of philosophy. No lives had been lost — Coast Guard boats had rescued the captain and the crew — but the first assessments of the damaged hull pegged the hopes of salvage in the vicinity of few and none.

Happily aloft in the vicinity of my father’s hat, and the weather having cleared since the Ohioan missed its compass heading, I was free to form my earliest impression of the sea at a safe and sunny distance, lulled by the sound of waves breaking on the beach, delighting in the drift of gulls in a bright blue sky.

The injured ship never regained consciousness. All attempts at righting it were to no avail, and in the summer of 1937, the removable planking and machinery having been sold for scrap, the Ohioan was declared a total loss, the hull abandoned to the drumming of the surf and the shifting of the sand. The prolonged and unhappy ending of the story my father regarded as a useful lesson, and over the course of the next three years as I was moving up in age from two to five, he often walked me by the hand along the cliff above the wreck to behold the work of its destruction.

To foster my acquaintance with the family’s history and changing fortunes, he spoke of distant ancestors sailing from the port of Boston and the Gulf of Maine in the early-nineteenth-century China trade, of my great-grandfather’s organizing the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company in 1899 not because of the money in the business but because of the romance. My father’s turn of mind was literary, and he was fond of strengthening his narratives with lengthy quotations from William Shakespeare’s plays and extensive recitations from Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Setting Sail

Read the rest of this entry →

Ellen Cantarow: Big Energy Means Big Pollution

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Hydrofracking aftermath

Gary Judson had just been removed from his shackles when they slapped the handcuffs on him.  The 72-year-old Methodist minister had chained himself to the fence surrounding a compressor station — part of the critical infrastructure associated with hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking — a stone’s throw from Seneca Lake in upstate New York.  The sheriff and his deputies freed him only to arrest him for trespassing.

“They don’t have the right to do this — to put the lake in jeopardy. We’ll all end up paying for their mess,” Judson told a small group of supporters on hand to witness his act of civil disobedience.  The “this” he was protesting, Sandra Steingraber recounts in a recent issue ofOrion magazine, was the plan of Missouri-based Inergy Midstream to turn abandoned salt caverns beneath the lake’s shores into storage areas for millions of barrels of natural gas piped in from Pennsylvania’s fracking fields.  “Inergy has been in violation of the Clean Water Act at this facility every single quarter for the past three years,” Judson said. “Since 1972, there have been fourteen catastrophic failures at gas storage facilities. Each one of them has been at a salt cavern.”  A “failure” at Seneca Lake could be particularly catastrophic because, Steingraber writes, it provides the drinking water for 100,000 people. (Last month, Steingraber was jailed for 15 days for her own act of civil disobedience against Inergy.)

In Pennsylvania, where gas is currently being forced out of the shale rock in which it’s resided for millions of years, “failures” are already an everyday affair, as TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reports in the latest in her series of articles from fracking’s front lines.  Once upon a time, coal miners, tunnel workers, and “radium girls” faced the horrors of their dangerous trades in seclusion, deep below ground, inside mountains, or hidden behind factory walls.  They worked and died unseen and unheard.

Today, industrial safety issues have come home — literally.  Toxic chemicals aren’t just reserved for Superfund sites; they are increasingly in our houses, our water, and our food.  When something goes wrong at a fertilizer plant, it doesn’t just mean workers are in danger any more, but also — as in the case of the town of West, Texas — a nursing home, a school, an apartment complex, and five blocks of residences in a small town.  As Cantarow writes, Pennsylvania farming communities are being turned into huge, open-air laboratories by energy companies eager to make North America a twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia, with ordinary people serving as its guinea pigs.  And those people are paying a heavy price: mystery illnesses, dead animals, polluted water, land made worthless, and the loss of a way of life.  In the midst of this new hell, however, there’s also hope. Like Gary Judson in New York, Pennsylvanians are speaking up, organizing, and doing what they can in the face of long odds and tough times. Nick Turse

The Downwinders 

Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania 
By Ellen Cantarow

More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.

Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging  industry pushes the next wonder technology — in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”

Rosner and Markowitz: Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube

6:19 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of Lead Wars book

Authors Markowitz and Rosner explain how our homes and bodies became corporate experiments.

Just over three years ago, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP killed 11 people, injured 17, and — according to government estimates — polluted the Gulf of Mexico with 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude.  It turns out, however, that the casualty toll didn’t end with those 28 workers.  The real number may reach into the thousands.

Last year, BP pled guilty to 14 felonies stemming from the disaster, including misleading Congress about the amount of oil that gushed into the gulf.  But that wasn’t the only way BP attempted to cover up the extent of the spill.  The main method was using 1.84 million gallons of a substance known as Corexit that acts to “attach itself to leaked oil, break it into droplets, and disperse them into the vast reaches of the gulf, thereby keeping the oil from reaching Gulf Coast shorelines.”

Writing for Newsweek and with the support of the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, Mark Hertsgaard recently laid bare how Corexit was utilized and the dire effects it apparently had on the men and women who worked to “clean” the gulf in the wake of BP’s historically unprecedented spill. People like Jamie Griffin. A BP representative reportedly assured Griffin that the smelly sludge cleanup workers were tracking into the “floating hotel” where she was a cook would be “as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid” — so she scrubbed and scrubbed to clean it up. “Within days,” Hertsgaard writes, “the 32-year-old single mother was coughing up blood and suffering constant headaches.” She soon “fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments… unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws… she began losing her short-term memory… The right side, but only the right side, of her body ‘started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled — my ankle would get as wide as my calf — and my skin got incredibly itchy.’”

Hundreds, perhaps, thousands of other workers were exposed to the same chemicals, including those who were coated in a mist of Corexit, since almost 60% of it was sprayed out of airplanes.  Hertsgaard reveals that not only “did BP fail to inform workers of the potential hazards of Corexit and to provide them with safety training and protective gear, according to interviews with dozens of cleanup workers, the company also allegedly threatened to fire workers who complained about the lack of respirators and protective clothing.”

So, add Corexit to the list of toxic substances brought to us by industries that promised better and include BP in a long catalog of companies which, over the last century, have tried to hush-up the truth about the types of chemical assaults for which the Department of Homeland Security issues no fact sheets.  It’s a story as old as industrial America and one that public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz know all too well.  For years, they have earned the ire of the lead and petrochemical industries for historical exposés that demonstrate how American companies regularly sacrificed workers’ health and children’s lives for the sake of big profits.

In their latest historical tour de force, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, Markowitz and Rosner chronicle the battles that have taken place over lead poisoning for the last half-century, with special emphasis on a study in which researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted what the Maryland Court of Appeals deemed unethical research on African-American children.  Knowing that some of the children in their study could be exposed to lead from old paint in the apartments they were moved into and so at greater risk for learning disorders and behavioral problems, they went ahead anyway.  If it sounds to you like some dark corollary to the notorious Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were denied treatment with penicillin so that U.S. government researchers could study the course of the disease, you’re not alone in thinking it.  The Maryland Appeals Court thought so, too.  But while the Tuskegee study began in the 1930s, when protocols for protecting people from medical experimentation were lax, the Johns Hopkins research started in the 1990s, when regulations supposedly provided ample protection from harm at the hands of public health professionals.  The story of how and why this came to pass is riveting and revelatory. (The co-authors will soon be discussing it with Bill Moyers on “Moyers & Company.”)

Today, Markowitz and Rosner — the first guest author ever to pen a TomDispatch piece back in December 2002 — lead a toxic tour, not through Superfund sites and nuclear no-go zones, but average American homes.  And no wonder, we live our lives immersed in a chemical soup never before encountered in human history.  We’re the lab rats in a make-it-up-as-they-go-along nationwide corporate experiment, which is also a sure-fire recipe for disaster.  Nick Turse

You Are a Guinea Pig
How Americans Became Exposed to Biohazards in the Greatest Uncontrolled Experiment Ever Launched
By David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

A hidden epidemic is poisoning America.  The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them.  We can’t escape it in our cars.  It’s in cities and suburbs.  It afflicts rich and poor, young and old.  And there’s a reason why you’ve never read about it in the newspaper or seen a report on the nightly news: it has no name — and no antidote.

Read the rest of this entry →