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Our society has often drawn the line between what is good for the environment and what is good for people. This is, however, a false dichotomy. I grew up in Cass Lake, Minnesota; a small town far removed from factories or power plants, but it is still home to one of the most polluted locations in the state. This calamity has poisoned Cass Lake’s people, weakened its social fabric, and put into question the morality and legitimacy of the state and federal governments.

Our society has often drawn the line between what is good for the environment and what is good for people. This is, however, a false dichotomy. I grew up in Cass Lake, Minnesota; a small town far removed from factories or power plants, but it is still home to one of the most polluted locations in the state. This calamity has poisoned Cass Lake’s people, weakened its social fabric, and put into question the morality and legitimacy of the state and federal governments.
First a little background. In 1955 the St. Regis Paper Company set up business in Cass Lake. Their plant was built to produce railroad ties for a railroad that was being built to transport coal from the east to the coal fired power plants in the Dakotas and others further west. When making the railroad ties, the St. Regis Paper company dipped the logs into several deep holes in the ground filled with toxic chemicals (dioxins, fluoranthene, and arsenic among others) where they soaked in order to preserve them from the elements. The soaking pits were not lined with any protective barrier to keep the chemicals from soaking into the surrounding soil or the deeper ground water. This continued for 30 years until 1985, when the St. Regis Paper Company was sold to International Paper, which closed down the plant and filled in the holes with no clean up to speak of.
When I started Elementary School, on my first bus ride to school I drove over the superfund site and I drove over it every school day for the next twelve years. It looks like an empty field, which is itself a curiosity seeing that most of the area is heavily forested. There are no markers of any kind suggesting its history or the danger that it poses to those who enter the contaminated area. When passing by, I often saw kids playing in the long grass, eating mud pies, and hiding in the pits that once held the toxic morass. It was no surprise to me then to learn that the area has extremely high rates of birth defects, cancer, and several other much rarer diseases. The dioxin has even found its way into the ground water and the nearby lake of Cass Lake, causing the EPA to declare the lake’s Whitefish as unsafe to eat.
Observers have asked why people would choose to live so close to the Superfund site. The fact is that they don’t. The town itself has been described by visitors as a scene from a third world country, with obscenely high unemployment and poverty rates. The median income of a resident of Cass Lake is $22,000; more than 50% lower than the state wide median. The city has an unemployment rate of 11.7% and considering that the Bingo Palace, the city’s largest employer, has been having trouble turning a profit, the number may go higher in years to come. The matter does not come down to choice but to money; most residents of the homes near the contaminated area would move if they could, but they lack the financial means to do so.
Even though the contaminated area was later classified as a federal Superfund site, the efforts to remove the toxins have been at best thoughtless and wasteful, and at worst criminally negligent. The first clean up attempt involved the excavation of several piles of contaminated material. The material was then transported several thousand feed from the worst contamination and was then dumped on another field where it remains to this day. The International Paper Company did conduct ‘cleanup’ efforts in which thousands of tons of toxic top soil were removed from the 125 acre contaminated area. However, after further testing done by the EPA it was found that the site was still contaminated and that over 40 nearby homes contained dangerous levels of the cancer causing chemicals dioxin and arsenic. The EPA then decontaminated the homes, an act that residents called ‘futile.’ Their children are always playing outside and the loose contaminated dust is nearly impossible to keep from being brought in on shoes and the wind. The only option that would protect the 40 families and their children is relocation from the contaminated area and yet the EPA balks at the $2.5 million price tag to protect those families and their children.
Now, the citizens of Cass Lake, many of which now live on the contaminated Superfund site have not taken their situation laying down. In 2003 Cass Lakers expressed their frustration by electing Elaine Fleming, who ran as a candidate from the green party primarily on the superfund site issue. Also, the town has been organizing a community cleanup project to remove garbage that clogs the streets of the much of the gutters and ditches. Despite the community’s efforts it is beyond Cass Lake to finance a substancial cleaning of the 125 acre contaminated area. Thus far the EPA hasn’t viewed actual cleanup or relocation as a viable options, and has instead opted to continue to provide homes located on the contaminated soil with free, periodic decontamination of their homes.
The EPA has justified it’s inaction with two arguments. The fist of which is cost. It costs $220,000 a year to clean the 40 homes while relocation would cost upwards of $2.5 million. While this may seem to be a rather cold cost/benefit decision against the people, there is a reason behind their decision. The Superfund program’s funding has dropped by 25% as a result of it being the target of President Bush’s spending cuts and as a result it is cleaning up 50% fewer sites a year. The EPA’s second reason is the "lack of imminent danger" to the nearby residents. Apparently they don’t consider increased cancer, child mortality, and disability rates to pose an imminent threat to Cass Lake.
Their inaction is a part of a larger problem for sure but it does not remove them or the International Paper Company responsibility. I am sick of looking back on my years in Cass Lake High and Elementary Schools, remembering all of the special ed students with the knowledge that for many of them their suffering had a preventable cause. How many more years must go by, how many more children must suffer from mental disability, how many more men and women must die early deaths from a lifetime of exposure to deadly toxins?
If I have learned one thing from my 17 years of living in Cass Lake it is this: if you want to heal communities you have to heal their environment as well. Poverty and environmental degradation are two sides of the same coin that feed off of each other in a vicious cycle of degeneration. If we are to save Cass Lake and the hundreds of other towns with Superfund sites around the country we need to tackle both the poverty and the environmental destruction because so long as there is one the other will always be there.

Originally posted to Garet43 on Sun Sep 30, 2007 at 11:23 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Its as if Love Canal never happened (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Its like the anti-Global Warming propaganda. How can you deny that toxic pollution is harmful?

    Truthiness is stranger than fiction

    by PanzerMensch on Mon Oct 01, 2007 at 03:24:48 AM PDT

  •  An important diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PanzerMensch, Foraker

    This is a sad and criminal indictment of our currrent government. The residents of Love Canal were relocated by Jimmy Carter. Even Reagan bought out Times Beach, MO. This administration should be forced to clean up this mess and relocate the residents.

  •  Superfund: another Republican crime. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    When the Superfund was created by Congress in the 1970's, it was explicitly funded by a tax levied on the chemical industry responsible for polluting those lakes and landfills in the first place. It was deemed appropriate that an industry that had profited handsomely while dumping toxins into your neighborhood and mine would be have to fund the clean-up.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to justice. The tax on the chemical industry had an expiration date, which came up during Clinton's second term. By then he was so weakened politically that he lacked the political capital to get this tax reauthorized. So the Superfund instead became the responsibity of us taxpayers. And almost immediately it was effectively de-funded. There are now literally thousands of heavily poisoned sites around the country slated for remediation, where...well, nothing at all is happening. Nothing is going to happen. My area (rural Western New York state) has so many poisoned sites it looks like it has the measles on a Superfund map. Might have something to do with the fact that our colon cancer rate is twice the national average.

    But don't you worry. George W. Bush and the Rubber Stamp Republicans have made the world safe for Dow Chemical and Occidental Petroleum.

    •  Just a few clarifications (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Arsenic, Aidos

      Superfund (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA) was passed in December 1980. It took a few years for the fund to build up and for the environmental industry to gear up to do the work. Much of the early work had to be revisited as our knowledge and technology improved. The early years of the Reagan Administration was a disaster for environmental cleanups because of industry appointments like EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch (later Burford) and director of the Superfund program Rita Lavelle. Major scandals put Lavelle in jail and forced Burford to resign. Superfund was reauthorized in 1986 (Superfund Amendments and  Reauthorization Act, or SARA). Newt Gingrich and his crew, as you pointed out, blocked the 1996 reauthorization, so now, the fund is no longer being replenished except for interest. As a consequence, EPA has become very conservative with the fund. A few million used to be nothing for starting a cleanup. They'd spend more than that for some investigations. But now, funding is less stable.

      Buyouts aren't all that common. Love Canal and Times Beach are the two most notable. There are others, but not nearly so big. EPA is reluctant to buy too many properties too often because of the expensive precedent it sets. The situation has to involve great imminent threat. Unfortunately, what one community might view as an imminent threat to them may not be perceived the same way by the risk assessment specialists at EPA.

      Superfund typically addresses local problems, unlike air and water pollution which can be regional problems and global warming which is of course global. Consequently, it helps to have your elected representatives lobbying EPA for some action.

      Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

      by TerraByte on Mon Oct 01, 2007 at 06:30:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is the kind of diary that has a long life (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sarahnity, Halcyon

    Kid Oakland calls it "long tail blogging." To make it easier to find, I added two standard tags, poverty and pollution. If you check, you'll see you don't need United States or environmentalism. The first is default for the site and the second is redundant. As is poison, since you've got toxins, another standard tags.

    If you're going to keep writing about this situation - I encourage you to do that - settling on your tags is a good idea. Think of them as the content index to the site. Which is what they are.

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