On the Importance of Caring for the Environment

My May Day speech, 2016.

It’s fitting that we celebrate the wildness in nature that surrounds us on May Day, this festive day honoring the bounty Spring and Summer will bring.  It is easy, however, to forget how delicately balanced our ecosystem is, how seemingly small things can lead to such disastrous effects.

“The Eyes of the Future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

These prescient words from Terry Tempest Williams should be taken to heart by all of us.  Lack of foresight and lack of caring about the natural world has already led to many catastrophic events such as the Gulf oil spill in 2010 or the uncountable number of small offenses committed in every city where, for example, even just one single person chooses to dump their waste from changing the oil in their car onto the ground. Even things as small as this can have significant cumulative effects.  

I will never forget the first time I visited a site when I started my career investigating contaminated areas.  We were working in a portion of land that had been affected by a manufactured gas plant over a hundred years earlier.  These plants were used to make the gas that powered lights and was used in heating and cooking in the 1800’s and early 1900’s before electricity caught on.  They used to exist in every city and most large towns and so are fairly common.  The site itself was a rectangle of grass on a residential street with houses on either side and a few trees toward the back.  There was nothing about its outward appearance that said “scary pollution!”.  

We were there to sample the soil, going down several feet from the surface.  I had looked at old reports on the land across the street that described visible coal tar saturated soil in such abundance that it would need to be treated in some way.  But to my, as yet, untrained eyes, the entire area looked like a normal suburban scene.  And at this point, the worst pollution I’d seen had been images of oil spills on the nightly news in places so far away they may as well have not existed.

We needed to investigate the soil from the ground surface down to about 15 feet so we brought a drill rig on site which could drill small holes and bring up core samples for us to analyze.  They were set to pull up 4 foot intervals of soil at a time.  At only a couple of  inches in diameter, each cylinder would be a small snapshot of what existed underground but it would, hopefully, be enough to create a picture of the whole site and determine what pollution, if any, existed there.  

As the driller pulled up the first soil sample, it was clear we had already found something.  What looked like thick, black oil was smeared all over the outside of the drilling rods.  And though the very top of the soil was relatively clean looking, it was only a couple of feet below the surface where we saw a black, oily substance dripping from the sample.  The smell was unmistakable.  This was definitely coal tar from the old manufactured gas plant.  After only half a week of sampling, it was clear that this contamination was everywhere at the property just a few short feet below the surface.  We eventually found that the groundwater there was mixed with coal tar as well.  

In the end, we installed a system of groundwater extraction wells at the site to pump the coal tar from the groundwater.  Thousands of gallons were pumped from that half an acre of land over the course of a few years and the remediation is still not done.  Because of human neglect, it will likely take decades to bring this site through the entire process from initial characterization to the point where it is clean enough to not need any more treatment.  And it is important to note that this site may never be completely clean of contamination.

Seeing that coal tar dripping into small pools on the plastic sheeting we worked over, was a turning point for me.  It was as if I had just swallowed the red pill in The Matrix.  Suddenly, I was seeing potential sources of contamination everywhere I walked.  Now I knew that not only could there be significant contamination in any neighborhood but that there almost certainly was something nearby anywhere I happened to be.  

When I see a gas station, I remember the countless leaky underground storage tanks I’ve seen.  I remember the pervasive smell of gas in the soil at a property that hadn’t been a gas station for 20 years.  When I see old transformers on power line poles, I think of toxic PCBs leaking down into the ground below.  When I see old houses and farms, I think of oil tanks long since forgotten that have leaked into the surrounding soil and groundwater.  When I see old buildings, I think of asbestos wrapped pipes, tiles, and flooring.  When I pass by old dry cleaners, I think of the plumes of toxic cleaning solvents often found beneath them.

And those are just some of the everyday things.  That doesn’t take into account the manufacturing plants or industrial areas where you might expect to find pollution.  Places like the old chrome plating business that dumped all their effluent into a neighboring pond because it was the easy thing to do at the time.  And because they did that 40 years ago, the groundwater there is now yellow like gatorade because of the enormously high concentrations of hexavalent chromium in it.  

All of these places, these businesses, these utilities are so synonymous with modern life that we have come to accept them without a thought.  Yes, we recycle, we try to use reusable shopping bags, maybe we walk or bike to work instead of driving now.  All of these things are good but I still ask that you look at the world around you with a critical eye.  Be aware of how all the little things can add up to larger problems in the future.  Ask questions about what is happening in your community and ask yourself if there is something you can do to help.  It’s not just the negative things that pile up, it’s the small, positive changes that add up to something bigger too.  

Take the Charles River, for instance.  Falling into the Charles River of my childhood was a terrifying prospect.  Public swimming in the river was banned in the 1950’s.  How did it get so bad?  Mostly from all the untreated sewage that ended up in the river after periods of heavy rainfall due to now illegal connections between stormwater and sewage pipes.  Essentially, it was found that the sewage and stormwater systems were one in the same.  During drier periods, both sewage and rainwater flowed to the treatment center on Deer Island in Boston Harbor and was cleaned. This was not a problem.  However, when a major rainstorm hit, the pipes would backup and everything, including all that untreated sewage, would flush directly into the Charles River and its tributaries.  As a result of this, the bacteria counts of the old Charles were astronomical.  

The clean-up of the Charles River began in the late 80’s.  Effort was put into finding and fixing these illegal connections between sewer and stormwater drainage pipes.  In 1995, the Boston office of the EPA graded the Charles River a “D”.  At that point, the Boston and Cambridge portions of the river were only deemed safe enough for boating 39% of the time and for swimming only 19% of the time with respect to E. coli levels.  However, because of cleanup efforts and the renovations to local sewage and stormwater drainage systems, by 2011 the River was deemed safe enough for boating 82% of the time and for swimming 54% of all days.  As a result of testing in 2014, the EPA has now graded the Charles a much higher B+.  

Amazingly for someone like me who grew up here, in 2013 the river was finally clean enough that the Charles River Conservancy was able to secure the permits to have days where people could jump in and swim from a dock, current bacteria counts permitting of course.  The river continues to improve and I actually took part in one of these public swimming days last summer.  Yes, I showered immediately after getting home but it still felt like swimming in a normal river!   

The lesson here is two-fold.  Ideally, we have learned from the past and will work to prevent further pollution in our environment through education and taking an active role in our communities.  And for all those places that have sadly become contaminated already, there is still hope if we are willing to put forth the effort to clean them up.  We have a responsibility to the Earth that goes beyond ourselves and our lifetimes.  If we are proactive about helping our environment and educating ourselves and others, perhaps my job can finally become obsolete.