Where I live these days is right smack dab in the middle of North America. Anyone who’s ever studied meteorology, or just likes to watch the Weather Channel, knows that there are bands of air girdling the globe that blow this way or that, depending on latitude and Coriolis force…makes me want to listen to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, opus 62, aka “Coriolanus.” (playing it now! thank ghod for Youtube!) At any rate, at certain latitudes, there are “prevailing winds” that tend to blow from one or the other direction most of the time, unless there’s a weather system moving through. I’m at about 38° 35’ North. Other places I’ve lived have all been around 37 to 38 degrees north of the equator as well. The prevailing winds are from the west. Looking at a wind rose on an old map is interesting, as it will show the percent of the time that winds blow from all the different compass points.
This brings up the contentious topic of so-called “environmental racism.” Where do we put the hog farms and incinerators and landfills and rendering facilities and chemical plants? Why, naturally, downwind! Not just downwind from rich folks, but downwind from everybody, when originally laid out. My fellow United Statesians will recognize places like East San Jose, East LA, East St. Louis, or Camden, New Jersey, which stole the highest-crime statistic from Newark, NJ, last year, and might as well be termed East Philadelphia. So, fine, we put all the noisy and smelly industries downwind from where people live; they just go there to work but come back home at the end of the day to fresher air. What happens, though, when population increases and the nicer areas fill up? Well, we build housing on the outskirts of the hub. Archaeology classes taught me that the best sites are under cities, because people tend to settle in places that have available fresh water, shelter from the elements, a good view, etc., so they tend to stick around and build on top of what was there before. Back when I was a state hazardous waste inspector, an underground tank removal at an old gas station uncovered a “single-use” German cholera cemetery with headstones dating from 1845-1849; you never know what you’re gonna find when you break ground.
So, what’s the deal with “the east side?” Pawn shops, strip joints, check-cashing places, rent-to-own furniture, all the pay-phones removed because of crack and meth deals, and all the rest. We keep breeding, and people need some damn place to live, so crappy housing gets built around those industries we were trying, originally, to keep away from where we’d have to smell and hear them. Does this make sense so far? And who can afford to live in those neighborhoods? Poor people, duh. The socially disenfranchised. Not just black folks, but anybody down and out. Hell, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is the poorest community in the US, and I’ve done my part trying to reduce lead-poisoning in our aboriginal population. This isn’t about color or ethnicity, it’s about economic status. I call it environmental classism instead.
All this has been fermenting in my fevered brain for some time, but what brought it out was a recent article in the local rag about a Superfund cleanup that’s long overdue in north St. Louis. Carter Carburetor, which made most of your vehicular breathing systems long before Holley or Edelbrock were around, was located there since 1909. When they finally closed their doors in 1985, they left behind the usual contamination for any industry that did business before the EPA was created in 1970 and the Superfund law was created in 1980. That neighborhood was primarily blue-collar German and Irish up until the mid-‘80s, when it became predominantly African-American. So I wonder how our congressman can call it a case of “environmental racism” for not being cleaned up despite having been in the pipeline for 26 years. It didn’t score high enough on the Hazard Ranking System to be on the National Priorities List, a system I used to work with and found flaws in it even before they dumbed it down in 1990. It’s true that there aren’t any NPL sites in the city, just in the county, so there may be some merit there.
There was a site up in (totally WHITE) North St. Louis County that I did research on going back to 1875; gave it as high a score as I could, and some anonymous eedjit in Jefferson City lowered the score from 6.88 to 1.27. The system is messed up, but it’s all we have. I was hired years later, after I went solo, as an expert witness by a law firm, and a judge ruled that it was just trace contamination at that former drum-reconditioning operation, even though we dug up leaky drums that were FULL, and the local residential population had skyrocketed, increasing the chance of exposure greatly. The influence of politics must have been present on that one.
My point, though, is that it’s not a “race” thing, but a socioeconomic “class” issue. If the people being affected bothered to vote regularly, it might not be as bad as it is. The folks that want to deny us protection vote every time, believe me. The worst part is that, though the TCE contamination at Carter was there and was gonna need some work anyway, the PCB mess didn’t have to happen but for a subsequent owner, after the place was empty, taking in old transformers and ripping out the copper wiring to sell for scrap, spreading the polychlorinated biphenyl-laden oil all over the damn place. I have no clue as to what color THAT guy was, but I’m sure it wasn’t green.
Let’s also not forget that Superfund’s budget was slashed to zero in 1996. That’s why there are so many overeducated cleanup experts doing other stuff now. There was a great Dilbert cartoon with Dogbert sitting behind a big desk with a sign saying, “I’m NOT unemployed, I’m a CONSULTANT!” The truth hurts!!!
[P.S. I’m not an “ist” of any stripe, racist, sexist, genderist, ageist, speciesist, classist, none of that stuff. I believe we all have equal capacities to do great things or to fail to. I vote for the former. Sooner or later we’ll have to confront some of this stuff; why not NOW? Everybody should play nice, though, and THINK before you ACT. There’s a reason that brain is on top.]