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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Smoke Stacks, Colleges & the Sensitized Mind

The Greens party in Germany rose to political power on environmental issues during the 1970s. The safety of nuclear power was the overarching boilerplate issue. Quality of life and environmental concerns moved to the forefront of the national political debate.  In Southern Germany, candidates of the Greens vied for seats in local and state elections on a number of local environmental causes. Notably, I remember Greens gaining seats in the municipal parliament of Darmstadt, a mid-size town less than an hour drive South of Frankfurt am Main.

At the time, the Federal Republic matched roughly the size of Illinois and possessed a population of about 61 million people. Land was always precious. But there was an ever growing need for garbage dumps. The search for suitable sites was desperate. Trash was sold to East Germany.

A new dump was opened near Darmstadt at the Messel pit which happened to be home of one of the world's most distinguished paleontological excavation sites containing fossils with preserved soft tissue (Messel: An Insight into the History of Life and of the Earth). Students and volunteers labored to uncover fossils on one end, while garbage trucks unloaded at the other end. Media attention and public outcry eventually halted the trash flow. UNESCO declared the Messel pit a World Heritage site in 1995.

At the time, trash incineration plants were widely considered a viable alternative to dumps. The technology promised to take care of the ever growing pile without great space requirements and endangerment of drinking water. The City of Darmstadt decided to build an incinerator on its perimeter. After completion the plant quickly became a stone of contention because of its potentially toxic emissions produced by incomplete combustion, notably dioxin. Dioxin is a highly potent carcinogen. Greens candidates won their first local elections in the state of Hesse over this issue. The plant was closed. A few years later, the Greens would grow into a coalition partner in state government. Joschka Fischer became the first member of the Greens holding a ministerial portfolio, that of environmental affairs.

The mindset in the country had profoundly changed. My youth at the western outskirts of Frankfurt had been accompanied by the tall stacks of a sprawling chemical plant unrelentlessly billowing gray and yellow plumes into the sky. The plant was home to the chemical giant Hoechst AG. The smell of chlorine hung in the air on rainy days. The river adjacent to the plant took its waste water. River fish were disfigured on occasion. Sometimes fish died in great numbers downstream. Sometimes the cars parked near the plant were splattered with red or blue polka dots. Though the populace disliked the nasty side effects of the production process, nobody complained much. After all, the plumes had held steady well-paid jobs and affordable housing for tens of thousands of workers over four generations. The benefits were excellent. The Greens, however, introduced new legislation to protect the environment. Tougher standards for pollutants were introduced. Eventually, the stacks stopped spewing for good. Today, the site of the former Hoechst plant is home to a vast parking lot with a few buildings housing environmentally friendly high-tech companies. The water quality in the river has improved enormously. Fish are healthy. People canoe. Maybe salmon will be reintroduced one day.

Perhaps because of the surroundings of my upbringing, my eyes remain sensitive to smoke stacks in the city scape to the day. Whenever I detect them, I wonder whether they are still in use and what may emanate from them. Visiting university and college campuses across the United States, I frequently discover such stacks. Coal-fired steam and power plants were commonly built on campuses in this country. They usually maintain a low profile and nobody seems to pay them any attention. By contrast, the plant on the edge of the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, caught my attention on first sight. The plant's stacks stand out because of the shiny new bulges around their waist. The bulges contain scrubbers cleaning the plant's emissions. The university provides an excellent report on the upgrades commissioned in 2004 and a detailed history of the plant with photographs (Environmental impact review heating plant upgrade project number: 207-16872 WO#: 932285 P 1353, University of Virginia, Agency 207, Charlottesville, Virginia, October 1, 2004). The report is an insightful example of how our attitudes toward air pollution have changed over the decades. The plant now fully meets 21st century emission standards. I walked away impressed.

Since that discovery, I have become sensitized to gleaming bulges around smoke stacks on campus tours. As institutions of higher education that compete for the top internationally, American colleges and universities should vie for cutting edge technologies also in the Mundane. My son suffers from asthma. He need not attend a school that operates an antiquated power plant behind the dining hall no matter how it ranks in the U.S. News & World Report.

textbookx.com (Akademos, Inc.)

Addenda
  • Yesterday, a gas explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, Raleigh County, West Virginia, resulted in the greatest accidental loss of lives in a U.S. coal mine in 25 years. According to Ian Urbina's report in The New York Times today with the title "Death toll hits 25 in West Virginia Coal Mine Blast", 25 miners are confirmed dead. Four are still missing. Coal remains deeply interwoven with the fabric of life in Appalachia. Coal virtually is the only provider of well-paying jobs in some rural counties here. Leading institutions in the region are deeply invested in coal. The former chancellor of Vanderbilt University, E. Gordon Gee, sat on the board of Massey Energy Company, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. The university's power plant burns Massey coal. According to Anne Paine's report in The Tennessean dated Oct. 13, 2009, with the title "In eco era, Vanderbilt University keeps its coal plant", the plant releases its emissions unscrubbed. It is located right on campus between the Student Life Center, dormitories and the Cafeteria in earshot of the chancellor's office. Larry McCormack produced an informative slide show of the site for The Tennessean. Risk perception does not seem to have changed much since the times of the Rocket Boys, except fewer miners are needed to extract the coal today and, on average, fewer die in mining accidents. However, the tragic disaster yesterday constitutes a stark reminder of energy's true cost (04/06/10).
  • At about midnight central time, rescuers reached the four missing miners. None was alive (Joe Rauch's post on Reuters with the title "Missing West Vurginia miners found dead, blast toll at 29").
Bless our miners (04/10/10)!
  • According to Howard Berkes' report with the title "Feds Reveal Theory On Why W.Va. Mine Exploded" broadcast on National Public Radio News today, Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators have assembled more details on the causes of the incident, suggesting that equipment malfunction may have played a fatal role. The report includes detailed diagrams on the timeline of the events leading up to the explosion. The investigation's final report is due in about three months (01/19/11).
  • Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries produced a excellent audio portrait of James Weekley with the title "The Last Man on the Mountain" which was broadcast today on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. The story paints a formidable picture of the profound relationships among coal, the mountains and the people of Appalachia (08/11/2011).
  • According to Howard Berkes' post with the title "Doctors Confirm Black Lung In Victims Of Mine Blast" published online on National Public Radio's Shots May 17, 2013, the lungs of six of seven Upper Big Branch Mine victims whose families consented to autopsies showed signs of Black Lung Disease (11/04/2013).

Homer Hickam's book "Rocket Boys" tells a moving story about his childhood in an Appalachian coal mining town and a unique solution for leaving this life behind.

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