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This is inspired by a post from Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse a couple weeks back, and I hope in its own small way it complements the myriad of great posts about science issues on DailyKos.

The theme for this diary entry is how scientists are learning and extracting good from bad situations, especially Superfund sites.

What I mean here is research like what's sprung up around the Berkeley Mine Pit in Montana. The pit itself is a hellhole. After mining was suspended from a mining operation, the pumps that kept water from pooling in the pit were shut off. Well, many years later, what's been left is a rapidly filling pit with insanely high levels of many metals, and a pH of roughly 2.5. The pit itself has been given up as a lost - the entire Superfund goal there is to protect the surrounding land, since the pit itself is a complete loss.

However, despite all the expense and aggravation and environmental impact, not all is lost. Resourceful scientists have multiple projects around the Berkeley Mine Pit, trying to learn as much as they can. Plants that they hope can extract metals from the soil are being planted and tested for their "cleanup capacity" (aka phytoremediation). Proposals have been floated for algae to be used to similar effect. Chemists have also isolated "extremophiles" (organisms which can survive the hellish conditions)which contain chemicals which have shown promise as anticancer agents. I don't claim that the mining company was prescient in anticipating the good uses their negligence would lead to - quite the contrary - but I instead laud the resourcefulness of the scientists using this site to learn.

Another example is the Superfund Research Program, which I just learned about while researching this diary a bit more. The Superfund program itself should never have had to happen, but the "learning about" that has sprung up from the bad can help to educate people so that these environmental travesties don't happen again.

The Superfund site at Tar Creek (and presumably other sites) inspired the Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, based out of Harvard. Again, it would have been best if this research would never have had to happen - but perhaps what they learn in examining the impact of living near the Tar Creek Superfund site on children may help in other areas and other contexts.

These are but a few examples of a phenomenon that happens a lot. Scientists go in and learn what they can from "the bad", and they then apply those lessons elsewhere. Or try to extract some societal good. It doesn't ever excuse the actions of those who created the disasters, but it does make some good out of an otherwise hopeless situation.

As a bit more of a conclusion, I'd note that perhaps the area in which I've been most satisfied with Obama's presidency thus far is his renewed emphasis on science. We went through 8 years of science being at best sidelined and at worse outright ignored. I hope there's more of these sorts of stories now, with the increased funding and the apparent willingness to make the right decision environmentally instead of just the decision which makes the quickest buck.

Originally posted to chparadise on Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 03:35 PM PDT.

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