What Lies Beneath: To Manage Toxic Contamination in Cities, Study Their Industrial Histories
By James R. Elliott and Scott Frickel
Philadelphia's hip Northern Liberties community is an old working-class neighborhood that has become a model of trendy urban-chic redevelopment. Crowded with renovated row houses, bistros and boutique shops, the area is knit together by a pedestrian mall and a 2-acre community garden, park and playground space called Liberty Lands.
First-time visitors are unlikely to realize they're standing atop a reclaimed Superfund site once occupied by Burk Brothers Tannery, a large plant that employed hundreds of workers between 1855 and 1962. And even longtime residents may not know that the 1.5 square miles of densely settled land around the park contains the highest density of former manufacturing sites in Philadelphia.
Over the past 60 years, more than 220 factories operated in this same small area. Nearly all did business before the mid-1980s, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started requiring businesses to report releases of toxic materials.
In our book, Sites Unseen, we set out to discover how many such former sites exist and why, over time, they simultaneously seem to proliferate and disappear from view. The data we collected from state manufacturing directories dating back to the 1950s don't tell us whether specific addresses we found are presently contaminated. But they do provide richly textured maps of where and for how long hazardous industrial activities operated in four very different cities—New Orleans, Minneapolis, Portland and Philadelphia. Our findings strongly suggest that these and many other American cities now face a legacy hazardous waste problem they don't even know they have.
Hazardous Waste Legacies
According to data recently released by the EPA, in 2017 industrial facilities (excluding mining operations) released 1.1 billion pounds of hazardous waste at the point of production or "on site." That number is an understatement, because government records rely on voluntary reporting and exclude smaller manufacturing facilities that also pollute. And there is virtually no public documentation of similar releases before the 1980s.
To investigate the scope and scale of this problem, we identified relic and active sites from state manufacturing directories, which can be found in public libraries nationwide. These guides are largely untapped sources of information about where manufacturing activities occurred, for how long, and what each facility produced. In each city we analyzed, we were surprised to learn that government databases ostensibly designed to identify hazardous sites actually captured less than 10 percent of historically existing manufacturing sites.
Through follow-up surveys, we learned that 95 percent of relic manufacturing sites are used today for activities other than hazardous industry. We found coffee shops, apartments, restaurants, parks, child care centers and much more at these locations. These patterns corroborate processes which we now suspect drive both the spread of contaminated urban lands and the concealment of their past uses.
Hazardous industrial sites in Houston's Inner Loop zone, bounded by Interstate 610. Sites marked 'o' were active sites in 2015; those marked 'x' are relic and largely uninvestigated sites where industrial activities took place between 1950 and 2010. James Elliott and Scott Frickel, CC BY-ND
Erasing Sites' History
Like other businesses, most hazardous industrial facilities operate for a time, then go out of business or move their operations elsewhere. This constant turnover is an ongoing, fundamental feature of urban economic development. And because urban land is limited and valuable, those lots typically are redeveloped for non-industrial uses when they become available.
Our data show that hazardous industrial sites turn over every eight years, on average. This means that an individual lot can be redeveloped multiple times, sometimes over the span of just a few decades. For example, one Portland, Oregon address that we investigated housed a neon sign and sheet metal fabricator during the 1950s, then the office of a dry bulk trucking company, and is now a doggy day care center.
These interlocking processes of land use and reuse have far-reaching environmental impacts that social scientists are only beginning to recognize. Lot by lot, small but ongoing changes in urban land uses spread toxins across urban areas. At the same time, pressures for redevelopment often cover up the evidence.
In these ways, large, long-lived industrial sites, like the former Burk Brothers Tannery in Philadelphia, represent the tip of the iceberg of urban industrial activities and resulting contamination. Government agencies typically identify and clean up these large, visible sites that are known or widely suspected to be contaminated. And often they offer developers incentives to build on them, including liability waivers.
All the while, thousands of smaller, less prominent but potentially polluted sites go unnoticed, contributing to a much more systemic environmental risk.
Gowanus Canal Goes From Toxic To Trendy youtu.be
Look Back to Move Forward
Based on the research we did for our book, we believe the problem of relic industrial waste is far greater and more vexing than many scholars, regulators and developers appreciate. And this complexity has important implications for environmental justice and the question of who lives, works and plays in neighborhoods burdened by relic industrial contaminants. Communities can't set priorities for cleaning up contaminated land until they identify relevant sites.
Environmental justice studies that use more limited government data on hazardous sites provide consistent evidence that polluting industries and environmental hazards are more frequently imposed on poor and minority communities. But our findings suggest that, over time, risks also accumulate over broader areas—including white working-class neighborhoods of yesteryear, lower-income and minority neighborhoods that superseded them, gentrifying areas such as Philadelphia's Northern Liberties that are now selectively following, and whatever comes after that.
It is a basic social fact of urban life that industrial hazards accumulate and spread relentlessly. The sooner this problem is recognized, the sooner Americans can reclaim their cities and the environmental regulatory systems that are designed to ensure our collective well-being.
One way forward is for regulatory agencies to undertake historical investigations of relic industrial sites, using the same publicly available sources that we have used. Concerned citizens and neighborhood groups can do so as well, and the DIY User's Guide at the end of our book describes how to do it.
This is completely outrageous. Trump Admin. Blocked Toxic Chemicals Study Fearing 'Public Relations Nightmare'… https://t.co/ypdlpmMFLe— Enviro Voter Project (@Enviro Voter Project)1526393141.0
James R. Elliott is a professor of sociology at Rice University.
Scott Frickel is a professor of sociology and environment and society at Brown University.
Disclosure statement: James R. Elliott receives funding from the National Science Foundation. Scott Frickel receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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