A recent headline out of Flint, Michigan, stated that only 7 percent of the city’s homes had lead in their water above federal safety levels. While that is certainly a tragedy and requires a thorough investigation, it seems less than the full-scale Armageddon that was initially reported.
Human-caused environmental disasters are nothing new, and yet many people are hard pressed to name any other American cities that have suffered a similar or worse fate than Flint. Those of us of a certain age remember Love Canal, the New York neighborhood near Niagara Falls that was abandoned after children were found to suffer abnormally high cancer rates and other dangerous health problems. While officials dragged their heels in investigating, grassroots activists discovered that the neighborhood had been built on a toxic waste dump. In total, about one third of all residents suffered chromosomal damage that could lead to leukemia. The government was finally forced to relocate 800 families in the early 1980s when public outrage reached critical mass.
All students of environmental science should commit the following incidents to memory. If you grew up or live near one of these locations, it may be common knowledge. But, like common sense, common knowledge isn’t so common. One could argue that familiarizing yourself with our country’s environmental history is as important as knowing its “traditional” history.
So zip up your hazmat suit and strap on your respirator. We’re taking a chronological tour of prime U.S. Superfund territory.
Times Beach, Missouri
In the 1970s this sleepy, working-class town on the banks of the Meramec River near the Illinois border was home to 2,000 residents who lived in modest houses along dirt roads. To keep the dust levels down, the town hired a waste oil hauler to spray the dirt roads with oil. He got his waste oil from the nearby Independent Petrochemical Corporation. They had gotten it from the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company. It contained tons of deadly dioxins. Over several months in 1971 the waste oil hauler took six truckloads of dioxin waste (18,500 gallons) and mixed it with his other waste oil. It was this mixture that was sprayed on city streets.
In addition to spraying 23 miles of Times Beach’s dirt roads, he sprayed horse stables and arenas in the area. That’s when the first inkling of disaster became clear. He sprayed one arena with 2,000 gallons of the poisonous waste oil, and 62 horses died. A month later, 12 horses at another location died. But the Times Beach officials knew nothing about the dead horses and continued to let their streets be sprayed with a total of 160,000 gallons of dioxin-laced oil.
The EPA did not get wind of the problem until 1979–some eight years after all those horses died. Then they kept it to themselves. (More than a generation later, the EPA did the same thing in Flint). In 1982 the Environmental Defense Fund leaked internal EPA reports discussing the Times Beach contamination. Citizens were rightly outraged. The EPA was forced to complete more exhaustive tests. The town was evacuated; it flooded the next day when the river crested 14 feet above flood level. Nobody was allowed to return home.
Governor John Ashcroft, years before he became Attorney General under President George W. Bush, disincorporated the town in 1985. Clean-up was completed in 1997, and now the town is a state park commemorating U.S. Route 66.
Mining of anthracite coal began in Centralia in 1856. By 1890 the town had swelled to 2,761 residents, but it was all downhill from there. Mining ceased by the early 1960s.
In 1962 the town’s firemen allegedly set fire to trash at the city dump. The fire seeped into a nearby opening in an abandoned coal mine and snaked its way through the vast network of tunnels until extinguishing it became impossible. The fire burned for decades. People gave it little thought or didn’t even know about it until 1979 when a gas station owner discovered that the temperature in his underground fuel tanks hovered around 172 degrees. Then a sinkhole nearly swallowed a twelve-year-old boy in 1981. He was saved, but the sinkhole was found to be emitting lethal levels of carbon dioxide. It became evident that the ground beneath Centralia was highly unstable. The government began the long process of seizing properties via eminent domain. All homes were condemned in 1992. Nearby Byrnesville, pop. 75, was also abandoned. Population declined from 1,000 in the 1980s to ten in 2015.
Scenic Gilman, Colorado, was founded in 1886 during the Colorado Silver Boom on a 600-foot cliff overlooking the Eagle River. Once the silver was gone, miners turned to zinc and lead. All was well for the next 98 years. Then the EPA went and closed the mine in 1984 because of toxic contamination. Unlike many towns on this list, Gilman was a wholly owned company mining town, and population never reached beyond a few hundred. By 1912 the town was owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company, which left behind 8 million tons of toxic waste that hadn’t moved by the time the area was placed on the Superfund list in 1986.
In 2007 a public referendum passed by a wide margin allowing Ginn Resorts to turn the town and surrounding area into Ginn Resorts’ Battle Mountain Ski and Golf Resort. Ski at your own risk.
Southbend Subdivision, Texas
Southeast of downtown Houston, where the chemical companies thrive along the Gulf of Mexico, the Brio Refinery and Dixie Oil Processing were established in 1957. By 1982 the last vestiges of these companies had filed for bankruptcy, Monsanto owned the land, and the Southbend subdivision was rising along the edges of the desiccated landscape. Construction workers suffered many health problems, but the new home owners were oblivious to the decades worth of pollution buried on the other side of the fence.
The rest of the story follows a distinct pattern: Lots of kids with rare diseases that suddenly weren’t that rare, babies with birth defects, miscarriages, stillborn babies, a lackadaisical EPA. Intrepid reporters at the South Belt–Ellington Leader pursued the issue; tests found methylene chloride, benzene, toluene, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, and arsenic at the site. In one area vinyl chloride levels were 22,700,000 parts per billion (ppb); safe levels are 2 ppb. Eventually, a cover-up by Brio was proven, but virulent controversy over the cause of the health crisis remained. The houses were demolished beginning in 1997; the toxic waste was scheduled to be burned via an on-site incinerator until conscious, thinking residents complained. The area was removed from the Superfund National Priorities List in 2006.
Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma and Treece, Kansas
What happens when you build towns above a bunch of erratically dug lead and zinc mines? You destabilize the ground, that’s what. And you contaminate the groundwater. And you leave mountains of toxic metal mine tailings in people’s backyards. It becomes a textbook case of a place where no one wants to live. But it didn’t start out that way. Back around the turn of the twentieth century, Picher was home to the world’s largest zinc and lead mine. The mining continued right through World War II and until the late 1960s. When the mines closed, all that remained were about 30 “chat” piles around the city, filled with 178 million tons of mine tailings that were polluted with lead, zinc, cadmium, and arsenic. But the kids went four-wheeling on them anyhow. Cases of pneumoconiosis were 2,000 percent higher than in the general population.
A 1996 study found that 34 percent of the Picher, Oklahoma’s children suffered from lead poisoning; that’s way higher than Flint. The EPA and the state of Oklahoma issued a mandatory evacuation for Picher and neighboring Cardin, in the upper right hand corner of Oklahoma, as well as Treece, Kansas, just across the state line.
If lead poisoning isn’t enough (but of course, it is), the town’s buildings were situated on destabilized land and could have crashed through a sink hole to the bottom of a mine shaft at any moment. The Army Corps of Engineers found that 86 percent of all structures could collapse at any moment. And that was before the F4 tornado ripped through town in May, 2008. Just 18 months later, in September 2009 the town was disincorporated; the final high school class had 11 graduates. The population plummeted from a peak of 14,000 in the 1920s to 1,600 in the 2000s to 20 in 2009. Picher, Oklahoma, was officially the Tar Creek Superfund Site.