Archive for the 'contamination' Category

05
Oct
14

Official History

A few weeks ago, shortly after take-off from New York’s JKF,  I looked out of my airplane porthole and saw an unmistakable garbage dump, on a spit of land sticking out like a hitch hiker’s thumb into a wide river. I just managed to snap a picture before it was lost from view. The stylized shape and the unnatural parched grass cover are each a dead giveaway, as are the straight trails following the precise angles of this man-made hill.

croton point focus

Croton Point landfill. Click to see a larger image.

A little scouting on Google Maps and Google Earth showed this to be the centerpiece of Croton Point Park, in Westchester. It lies just north of Ossining, within view of the famed Sing Sing prison. A history of the park explains that the point has served its humble purpose for a long time: it was once a Native American oyster shell midden. Started as early as 7000 years ago, it is apparently the oldest shell mound found on the East Coast. The official history does not mention that the current park is laid out on top of a more modern garbage dump. That silence is also part of the perennial landfill pattern. Native American garbage, less noxious to start with, has been purified by time. Our own garbage is a different matter altogether and is still unmentionable.

I do wonder how it happens. Perhaps someone wrote a history that referred to the dump and was made to erase all reference to it by reviewers who were afraid to scare off the public? Or did the writer not even think to include it? Judging by my own experience of group encounters with the less ideal contours of reality, either of these possibilities is thoroughly plausible.

The New York Times manages this negotiation with the unpleasant just a little bit better in a 1990 article about an exhibition of local folk tales: “MONEY HILL is no longer shown on any Westchester map, and if it once was haunted the witches have fled the old knoll on Croton Point. The Indian trinkets and pirate gold reputed to be buried there – which gave the hill its name – will not be found now. The site is buried under the thousands of tons of waste that cover what is now a landfill.”

Just two years earlier, the news was even more explicit: “THE 600 acres of Croton Point once formed one of the largest tidal marshes on the Hudson River. After 50 years as the site of an active county dump, however, the area is judged by environmentalists to be a health hazard. A Federal judge last month called the landfill, which was closed in 1986, an environmental time bomb.” Again we are grateful to the New York Times in reporting on several lawsuits over toxic waste and possible groundwater pollution from the site. Imagine the poisoned plume that spreads from what must be an unlined dump, old as it is.

That’s why I love garbage, repulsive as it is. No matter how much it is hidden, erased, or denied, it sticks around, stubbornly bearing witness to what we most like to forget.

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07
Feb
12

In the Foothills

In Chicagoland, the major garbage range is formed by the Calumet Mountains. Very impressive, and I’ve written about them before in Connecting the Dots. But today I had reason to be in Dolton, Illinois, which doesn’t happen every day. Dolton lies in the foothills of the Calumets, south-south-west more or less.

View from Needles Park

Dolton is not exactly a metropolis. It has a 70s-style diner, a discount store, a Western Union, liquor stores and launderettes, miles of chain-link fence, smothered chicken at the Samichez take-out, lots of blowing trash, more than a fair share of resignation, and a highly unnatural stench in the raw air. And of course a very large pile of trash butting up to Cottage Grove Lake and the baseball diamond at Needles Park.

In his essay Disneyland with the Death Penalty, William Gibson says, “Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce.” I get that. It feels as if far more is revealed in the rubble and dust than in the buff and polish of the showcase avenues. There’s the wear and tear of history, the stresses that spring from lived reality, the cracks that open under the weight of grief.

But what to make of a place where there is nothing but fracture? Where the Chamber of Commerce has lit out of town long ago and there is no lay of the land to look beneath? Where the wiring is kaput and the chemicals that make everywhere else so prosperous, shiny bright, and bug free are all on the surface–and in the air and the ground and the water?

What to do when understanding is not sufficient to the challenge on the ground?

25
Jul
10

Superman

Rocks drift to the surface of a field, endlessly. Murder will out. Tires break through the skin of a good old-fashioned garbage dump. Bizarre tidbits of history float up from oblivion in the obituaries.

Bill McCabe

Bill McCabe

By this mechanism, we recently learned that in more exacting times, before we removed unfeeling harshness and unreasonable standards from the landscape of everyday life, it was possible to get your 15 minutes of fame by exceptional performance qualifying as a garbage collector. In June 1940, Bill McCabe,

lifted an 80-pound dumbbell in each hand and hoisted a 120-pound trash can to a 4-foot-6-inch ledge. He lay on his back and lifted a 60-pound barbell placed behind his head. He broad-jumped 8 feet 6 inches after a 7-yard run, dashed an added 10 yards and jumped a 3-foot hurdle.

Continuing a 10-yard run over and around obstacles, he ran another 10 yards on a straightaway and climbed an 8-foot fence. Beyond the fence, he vaulted 4 feet 6 inches and then ran 5 yards to the finish line. The time for the entire run was 10.8 seconds. After a 15-minute rest, he ran 120 yards with a 50-pound dumbbell in each hand in 25 seconds.

And thus he achieved a perfect score on the qualifying test to become a New York city garbage collector—locally known as a san man—as well as gaining the enviable status of “perfect specimen,” at least according to his New York times obituary.

Of all the details of the test, I particularly like the 8-foot fence. Did the Sanitation Department envision its troops stealing into fortified backyards to liberate the garbage that wayward householders meant to reserve for their pigs and chickens? Were the sanitation stalwarts meant for feats of great athleticism or was this just an effort to boost the cachet of an unappealing profession? Maybe, but quite possibly the Sanitation Department got overzealous in the face of 68000 applicants for 2000 positions.

Bill McCabe anyhow was on to bigger and better things before his first year was out, first becoming a policeman and eventually stepping up to be a firefighter. He may have been the world’s one garbage man to wring fame out of his profession, but clearly it was not his dream job.

14
Mar
10

Recyclable Me

We might not like to think about it, but we ourselves are highly recyclable. Under the right circumstances, even teeth and bones will eventually resolve into new forms. Left to our own devices, we will at long last be carried away by critters or become absorbed into the mysterious, inexorable life of slowly heaving rock. Except for fillings and crowns, pacemakers, artificial knees, and other late-arriving hardware, nothing much remains.

To me, that sounds like absolution. Composting may not be a pretty process, but it’s the closest thing to the magic of “poof” that nature delivers. I bow to the light within that.

Skylawn Cemetery, San Mateo, CA

Nevertheless, a whole industry in the US takes the opposite view. A quiet army of morticians routinely embalm the broken bodies that arrive on their doorstep, pumping them full of chemicals that divert the dead from the cycle of life, transforming the remains into an environmental hazard. The only benefit achieved by the process is to sanitize the open-casket obsequies that appear to be nearly obligatory in the United States.

Of course there are alternatives. Cremation is better, though it too is associated with environmental burdens.  (The ovens contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and our non-organic hardware may be transformed into toxic fumes.) A green burial is the low-tech best, if you’re lucky enough to have a green cemetery nearby, easily determined with reference to the Natural End map. It turns out I can avail myself of a funeral home in Colma and repair to Mill Valley, California, where I can receive a natural chemical-free burial, involving a biodegradable casket or shroud and GPS coordinates to mark the spot. As Fernwood points out, I get “to be part of a land restoration project” in a whole new way.

But there’s a third high-tech recycling option, for those who lack the patience to do it the old-fashioned way: alkaline hydrolysis, a process by which the body is broken down to constituents in just about three hours. The Wikipedia article on resomation—the name by which the process is being marketed—specifies that what’s left at the end is “a small quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-coloured dust.” The liquid can be used to water the lawn, the dust is returned to the survivors.

And the New York Times pointed out that the industrial hardware—replacement parts, augmentations, and other devices—is delivered up clean and pristine and ready for another go-round. Perhaps Goodwill can handle the trade.

20
Oct
09

bad things happen to good garbage

When they started digging for the landfill I said to Sherm, “Ain’t that where we used to went skating?” “Still do,” said Sherm. “You ever seen them dig a landfill except where there’s groundwater?” Sure enough by July the Jack Wells Brook looked like swill. Sure enough by August there wasn’t a minnow left in Eagle Pond. Where was the state water folks when the brains was handed out? Sherm says they was out behind the Grange getting paid off.”

Donald Hall reports this story in his book Eagle Pond as a representative example of New Hampshire country conversation. It has a lovely local twang, but the events it describes have taken place a million times, all over the country and probably just about everywhere else. There is an intimate connection between garbage and corruption. Not so much the corruption of the garbage itself, unfortunately. The process of biodegradation, no matter how ardently hoped-for by all of us ordinary householders who put our wishful faith in it, is significantly retarded by current landfill disposal practices. Organic corruption is curbed significantly. To make up for it, there’s a lot of human resources corruption, involving the people paid to ensure proper handling of the waste and then paid again to grease the skids for a little extra profit to the people getting paid to do the proper handling.

improper garbage handling

improper garbage handling

The most high-profile stories of garbage-related corruption that have come to light include these lurid tales:

—  A mafia cartel with its origin in Yonkers controlled commercial garbage collection in New York City and outlying areas in the latter half of the twentieth century (see Rick Cowan and Doug Century, Take-Down: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire);

— A recent garbage showdown in Naples involved the accumulation of household waste in the streets because the landfills were full (again) as well as the dumping of toxic waste all over the surrounding region of Campania (see Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System);

— The passage of the RCRA in 1976, which controlled the dumping of toxics, sparked a wave of organized illegal disposal and stockpiling in eastern New Jersey and New York (see Alan Block and Frank Scarpitti, Poisoning for Profit: The Mafia and Toxic Waste in America).

And then there’s the story of Browning-Ferris, which gave away waste oil mixed with various toxics to southern counties, also in the 1970s, so that it could be used to lay dust on unpaved country roads. This is a minor story, comparatively speaking, but there’s something so brazen about it, so light-of-day, it deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Lest we think that this is a thing of the past, there’s James Galante, who got one conviction for tax evasion in 1999 and another one in 2008 for racketeering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and additional tax shenanigans. Up until that last conviction, he had the controlling interest in 25 garbage-related businesses that held most of the disposal contracts for western Connecticut as well as Westchester and Putnam counties in New York.

And then there are all the international scandals—ocean tankers dumping toxic sludge of uncertain origin in poor neighborhoods in Ivory Coast and other African nations, 90 shipping containers with contaminated recyclables from Britain delivered to Latin American ports—which don’t actually look all that different from the legal movement of toxics.

Garbage is not unique as a temptation to augment one’s income by cutting corners, it appears. Neither is it unique in attracting organized crime. Robert Kelly explains in his book The Upperworld and the Underworld: Case Studies in Racketeering and Business Infiltrations in the United States that there is a range of commercial enterprises that have historically been beset by those inclined to bribery and violence in the furtherance of their material longings. This includes construction, pizza parlors, and waterfront businesses, as well as the full range of garbage-related enterprises. Industries in which many small businesses offer low-margin services are especially susceptible to racketeering, Kelly points out. It helps if there’s a labor union to bend to one’s criminal purposes.

But the most interesting contributing factor is the existence of regulation.  The consequence of regulation goes a step beyond the well-known fact that crime is created by the law that makes it so. Before the early 1970s, it was lawful to dump industrial wastes freely into air and water, although it certainly wasn’t sanitary and the dumpers would have been pretty well situated to know that. As soon as the RCRA was passed into law, dumping industrial wastes became a crime, which exposed the guilty to (relatively small) fines. Similarly, Europe has stringent regulations that say toxic wastes cannot exported out of the country in which the waste is created and they can certainly not be exported to places that don’t have the same regulations. By definition, sending a shipment of used European refrigerators to Africa is a crime. Sending a shipment of used American refrigerators to Africa is just business as usual, because the US doesn’t have the same export restrictions.

But something else happens, besides the mere change in status of the activity. Regulations make it more attractive to cheat, because they typically make it more expensive to properly treat or dispose of waste. And that means that the profit margin associated with the improper treatment or disposal of waste increases, often sufficiently to catch the attention of organized crime. In the first place, it becomes attractive to charge the going rates for proper disposal of a vast range of poisons and then just dump it in the landfill  or stockpile it in an abandoned warehouse or let it run into the nearest stream when nobody is looking or set it on fire or lay it under an overpass under cover of darkness or wait for rain and open up the spigot of your tanker truck as you drive along the interstate. And then secondly, if you lower your prices just a tiny bit under the going rate, you can undercut your honest competitor and still make a handsome profit. Block and Scarpitti’s Poisoning for Profit may be read as an indictment of widespread corruption but it’s also a tips-and-tricks sort of “Poisoning for Dummies”. The most brazen scam I have heard of was perpetrated in Italy: the Camorra would take loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dump it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collect the subsidies), and then sell the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits to grocery stores (at decent prices).

However, all of the experts on organized crime say that it exists only where there is widespread collusion by authorities and other bystanders. And I suspect that, in addition, garbage is especially attractive as merchandise because the rest of us find it so difficult to pay attention.

14
May
09

Stinky Vinky

stinky's heap

stinky's heap

A little while ago I wrote about where the garbage I’m currently producing doesn’t go: the garbage dump near Barneveld, in the Netherlands. So I thought I’d go myself.

I can report it’s a beaut and large. And stinky. An oily substance seeps out of the frontal garbage declivity. Things peek up above the dirt which should be under it.

Other things lie about in the nonchalant abandon of retirement. What could they be doing, those giant rolls of something plastic. Still considering a second career? A short distance away lolls a stack of sewer pipe, also used, piled nearly up to the tops of the trees. If you can bring yourself to walk up close, you can look into the eyes of the curious horses in the meadow on the other side, like peering through a toilet roll at a primitive picture of rural delights.

astro turf? roofing material?

astro turf? roofing material?

The whole disreputable pile is exploited, as they say in the Netherlands, by a certain Vink, who’s just lost his permit for irregularities in disposal practices. Apparently I’m not the only one who took exception. But irregularities also occurred in the investigation, and Stinky may appeal the ruling. It doesn’t seem as if he’s in a hurry to clean up his act.

All of it lies alongside a picturesque country lane with old trees only a little the worse for wear that winds its way through fields just plowed and sowed. If you turn your gaze just so,  you can enjoy the view, the peaceful evening air, the birdsong, and the rustic chorus of crickets. Just bring some nose clips.

25
Mar
09

making a stand, calling a halt

Play a little movie for your mind’s eye: A retreating glacier gradually uncovers a long low valley. Pooling meltwater makes a chain of mirrors for the sky. Slowly the waters rise and a continuous lake forms, dammed up behind the former glacier’s terminal moraine. Eventually, the water breaches the moraine and leaves behind a green world of low-lying meadows dotted with stands of larch and spruce. Humans thread their way through the landscape occasionally, on foot or by canoe, hunting or fishing, building small settlements and giving them up again as their needs and local environmental conditions change.

frozen wetlands

wetlands in winter

The climate warms; the waters rise again. Gradually, salt marsh begins to form at the edges of the meadows as the sea pushes up into the valley, creating an estuary. Cedars move in where the stands of older trees give up their hold. Eventually a vast system of tidal wetlands forms, fed by two separate rivers. Then things stabilize. The seasons come and go for a few thousand years, but each day dawns on a landscape that remains essentially the same, wild and peaceful, quiet though crowded with a rich array of plant and animal species. Reeds rustle in the wind. A bird calls. A rabbit screams as it is carried off by a raptor. The water gurgles in and out of creeks on the tides. Every spring and fall, the squawking, honking, and screeching of migrating birds adds depth to the silence and the wind resonates with the whooshing of a million wings.

European farmers arrive, with their cattle and their agricultural traditions, which tell them that salvation lies in improving the landscape.  They do their best, but for the most part their efforts are modest, the forces of nature too vast, and their tools too simple to permit extensive change. Imagine primitive farm houses, inhabited by ragged families clinging to survival by their fingernails. The cows roam on higher ground in summer. Their owners mow the salt grass meadows for winter feed. Scraggly fences go up here and there, writing the notion of ownership across the valley slopes. A few ditches are dug, painstakingly, in an effort to drain the soggy low-lying meadows. Somehow, they must be made to support more cows, more people, more dreams of wealth and power.

The native hunters and fishermen are pushed back, and hostilities ensue. Dikes are thrown up, but time and weather bring them down again. One farm might fail. Another. A dike might breach, a ditch silt up. A whole family might die of fever. It hardly matters, because others take their place.

Bit by bit, the newcomers begin to sculpt the mud. Land is bought in large swathes. Roads appear. Straggling communities of farms become villages, then burgeon into towns. Brick kilns, tanneries, copper mines, and lumber mills show up in between the meadows. More roads are built. Those made from cedar planks swallow up the last of the valley’s trees.

Large-scale reclamations are attempted, to wring more profit out of the land. It begins to look more and more like something we are familiar with. Ferries and railroads help bring produce and manufactured goods from the hinterland to the coastal cities. Eventually all the upland areas are taken in hand, increasing the pressure to reclaim the marshes. The whole endeavor survives only by growth, like a malignant tumor. The towns grow together, making a single continuous urban wasteland, cross-hatched with roads and bridges, turnpikes, railroads. More and more, the valley is a place to get through, rather than a place to be in.

garbage mountain

garbage mountain

Ports grow larger. The machinery becomes more powerful, and the people more organized. Farms are pushed out by industries. Sounds of engines drown out the sounds of life. The last meadows are done over into suburbs. An airport is built. And all the remaining lowlands are filled up with garbage. Eventually, 51 separate and unregulated garbage dumps sprout in an area no larger than 32 square miles.

As time goes on, it must become increasingly apparent that what was begun as an experiment in improving the landscape is ending up an industrial desert, a slough of suburban despair. The Hackensack Meadowlands are now nothing but a misnomer, a historical name by which to measure the cost of improvement. To wring more profit from this poor place in an orderly manner, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission is created in 1969. Its task is to help speed the development process for the last remaining virgin land and to regulate garbage disposal, which, it can no longer be ignored, is not just unsightly but outright poisonous.

Then, finally, the movie takes a slightly different turn. Just in time too, I have to say, because the plot is awfully depressing, and besides it seems I’ve seen this movie many times before. Do we have to watch it again?

Hold on. Not long after its inception, the development commission decides that a far better mission would be conservation. Indeed. It throws itself up as the protector of the few unspoilt stretches of wetland, it attempts to restore the natural marshes at the foot of the garbage mountains, it opens an educational park and research facility on the waterfront, as a memorial to the decision never again to allow uncontrolled dumping.

There’s no turning back the clock, of course, no digging up of garbage, no pulling out of roads to make room for the natural salt grass, no removal of housing or factories,  even when they appear to be falling down of their own accord. Upon first arrival, the impression is still overwhelmingly of utter degradation. Finding the park is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Nevertheless, there’s ample reason to be grateful for the tag end of history, because it gives us at least a choice of morals. It’s undoubtedly possible to see the story as yet another illustration of the rapacious predatious nature of humanity or any subgroup thereof (see, for example, my own meadow lands). We’d have reason on our side to figure it’s too little too late. But we might also think about the meadowlands as evidence of our extreme adaptability and resilience. Time to get serious.




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