Superfund Stories

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first public meeting at a Superfund site.  This site is a rather nondescript triangle of land in the Port Richmond neighborhood, just to the west of my home in St. George.  Like many other parts of Staten Island, this now overgrown plot is a reminder of the toxicity produced by centuries of industrial production.

The site is official known at the Jewett White Lead Site. From 1839 to 1890, John Jewett and Sons operated a lead paint factory on the waterfront along the Kill van Kull at 2015 Richmond Terrace. The business was then taken over by National Lead, another paint factory, and continued to produce lead-based white paint until 1943. Various other businesses operated on the grounds subsequently, including, disturbingly, an ice cream factory.

In December 2008, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives collected soil samples from test pits on the site of the old paint factory.  They determined that elevated levels of lead are present throughout the site: the maximum detected concentration of lead (97,921 mg/kg) far exceeded the screening criteria for both children (400 mg/kg) and adults (880 mg/kg).

The statistics delivered by the EPA at the Jewett White Lead Site meeting prompted me to think about the toxicity that saturates the urban environment and seeps into our bodies, leaving ghostly traces and intensified concentrations over the years.  This toxicity is rendered in particularly graphic terms by a recent article in National Geographic in which reporter David Duncan tested himself for 320 toxic chemicals; he tested positive for 165, finding that his body harbored PCBs, DDT, dioxin, mercury, and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), flame-retardant chemicals put in everything from mattresses to the plastic and fabric interiors of cars and airplanes.

Duncan’s article offers an extremely unnerving account of the way in which the chemical-laden objects that surround us in everyday life inevitably seep into our bodies, building up a potentially mortal charge over the years. As Nan Enstad argues in an excellent discussion of toxicity and the consuming subject published in the collection States of Emergency, toxins introduce ideas of risk to global commodity chains, leading us away from a focus solely on consumption.  Considering a history of toxicity’s flow, Enstad suggests, may raise questions about decision-making and the allocation of risk at all levels of capitalist production, from the body to the highest levels of globalization.  Attention to toxicity thus helps open the corporeal to cultural analysis.

The corporeal history inscribed by toxicity upon the body is rendered powerfully in the photo essay that accompanies Duncan’s article in National Geographic. From the spectral traces of lead that line a young girl’s pelvis in an X-ray taken in the US to the eye-less head of a Vietnamese child exposed to Agent Orange residues from the US war in Vietnam, these images make the all too invisible ramifications of toxic commodity chains visible.

As these images and the work of environmental justice advocates in recent decades makes clear, toxicity, like wealth, is not evenly distributed. The origins of the Superfund designation in fact go back to a working class community in Niagara Falls, New York.  Here, in the spring of 1972, a group of children found hard chalk-like lumps in the dirt of a playground near their local school.  After several of the children had to be hospitalized for burns produced by powder from these lumps, a history of environmental negligence and criminal duplicity began to emerge.  Residents of the city’s LaSalle neighborhood discovered that their houses and the community school had been built atop a toxic waste dump.  The Niagara Falls Board of Education, it gradually became clear, had bought the property on which the school sat from the Niagara-based Hooker Chemical Company in 1953.  Hooker Chemical had dumped the toxic residues of its production into the disused Love Canal on the site for decades, and then had sold the land to the Board of Ed for $1, with the proviso that they would bear no responsibility for damages caused by the chemical wastes buried at the site.

The grassroots campaign, lead by women such as Lois Gibbs, that developed around Love Canal is an important moment in the 20th century US environmental movement.  In subsequent decades, the environmental justice movement did much to underline the extent to which poor people and people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic wastes in the land, water, and air of their communities.  Yet despite many decades of struggle, communities across the US and around the world continue to be subjected to forms of environmental racism and classism. In fact, it could even be argued that the soup of chemicals to which such communities are exposed has grown more lethal as companies develop increasingly complex substances, with genetically modified organisms now added to the catalog of toxins.

The ubiquity of Superfund sites around the US is highly unnerving, suggesting that few communities, particularly in the formerly industrial Northeastern US, are really very far away from a toxic site.  The illusion that the production of complex commodity chains has no impact on us is impossible to sustain in the face of this map, even if the residues and impact of toxins are often hard to detect in the individual body.

In the case of the Jewett White Lead Site, however, the long efforts of the environmental justice movement seem to have paid off.  The Port Richmond community in which the site is located is a predominantly African American and Latin@ neighborhood.  When the EPA called a public meeting to announce the results of its deliberations about how to clean up the site, there was consequently a great deal of community concern about whether the toxins would be safely removed from the soil.

At the public meeting, EPA officials were out in force.  They presented their decision with an almost theatrical flourish.  Before a decision was announced, an EPA spokeswoman outlined the various remedies considered by the organization: 1) do nothing; 2) remove all of the contaminated soil and fill the resulting hole in with clean topsoil; 3) put a soil cover over the contaminated site; 4) pave over the site; 5) immobilize the lead by adding concrete to the soil.

As these different option were described, the mandatory Powerpoint presentation itemized the costs of each of these approaches.  Everyone in the audience was silent as the staggering costs of the more preferable approaches were presented.

Despite this tension, however, the EPA pulled off a happy ending.  At the end of the presentation, officials announced that approach #2, complete “evacuation and off-site disposal/treatment,” was the preferred solution.

The public comment period for the Jewett site ended three days ago, and we now have to wait to hear what the final decision adopted by the EPA will be.  Yet while a thorough clean-up of the Jewett site may be in the cards, lingering questions remain about whether we can ever really make the toxic waste we produce go away.  When I asked during the meeting where the contaminated earth would be taken to, for example, the chief EPA official present answered that he didn’t know but that it would be a safe facility somewhere away from Staten Island.

To what extent, then, are we just moving toxins around?  Perhaps we are simply moving contaminants from Superfund sites to other, less-politically active sites.  Like an enduring answer to the issues raised by the rest of the waste stream produced by modern industrial capitalism, an enduring fix for the Superfund sites probably lies less in the pollute-and-evacuate approach currently prevalent in the US than in a determination not to produce toxins in the first place.  This, however, would require a sweeping transformation of today’s toxic cultures.

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