Toxic Towns: 6 Cases of Polluted Places

Every once in a while, an environmental disaster makes big news, but the effects remain years after the headlines have faded. Here are six stories of what human activity did to mess up Mother Nature.

1. Mossville, Louisiana

Mossville, Louisiana is a predominantly African-American community on the shores of Lake Charles. It is in Calcasieu Parish, home to 53 industrial facilities, mostly petrochemical plants. These facilities release nine million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment each year (the manufacturers say 2.5 million pounds) Residents have three times the national average amount of dioxin in their bodies, which the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry does not consider a health risk. Residents say the tests are misleading, as people from all over Calcasieu Parish were tested and Mossville residents should be tested separately. The EPA has Mossville under consideration for Superfund designation.

2. Butte, Montana

Copper mining in Montana went on for a hundred years before the Anaconda Mining Company began taking ore by the method of mountaintop removal in the 1950s. They shut down operations in 1983, leaving behind a huge hole that became known as the Berkeley Pit, where heavy metals and toxic chemicals collected from the mines. The Superfund site is estimated to contain 40 million gallons of polluted runoff. No fish or plants or even insects live there, but in 1995, a microscopic extremophile called Euglena mutabilis was found to flourish in the toxic sludge. Research on the protozoan may lead us to new ways of cleaning up polluted sites. Image by Flickr user SkyTruth.

3. Picher, Oklahoma

The ground under Picher is honeycombed with lead and zinc mine shafts and tunnels. The area provided metal for bullets and other uses in the first half of the 20th century. The industry left huge piles of chat, or leftover rock containing dangerous heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and cadmium all over the community. These metals and other chemicals permeate the air as dust that settles on everything, including the lungs of the residents. Picher is the location of the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Disagreements between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) who originally sold tribal land to mining companies, has stalled cleanup efforts. The mining companies are not contributing to the cleanup, as many of them have gone out of business or declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, while the population is dwindling, some residents continue to live and raise families in Picher. Image by Flickr user peggydavis66.

4. Love Canal, New York

In the late 19th century, Love Canal was proposed as a planned community, a "utopian metropolis". But the developer only got as far as digging a large pit before giving up due to lack of people who actually wanted to live there. In 1920, Niagara Falls bought the pit and used it for a chemical dump. The US army disposed of waste from chemical warfare experiments in Love Canal's pit. Hooker Chemical acquired the property in 1947 and continued chemical disposal. By the 1950s, it was filled with 21,000 tons of toxic waste. Hooker Chemical covered it with clay and soil and declared it sealed. They sold it back to the city of Niagara Falls, which built a neighborhood on top. Residents noticed strange smells and odd illnesses, as well as a shockingly high rate of miscarriages and birth defects. It wasn't until 1978 that the extent of the area's toxicity was revealed when an investigation by the local newspaper led to federal attention. Tests showed inhabitants of Love Canal had chromosomal damage caused by environmental pollution. Over a thousand families were relocated, and the Superfund program was born out of the incident.

5. Times Beach, Missouri

Before 1985, a little over 2,000 people lived in Times Beach, a community just 17 miles from St. Louis. To keep dust down on the dirt roads, the town hired Russell Bliss to spray oil on them. From 1972 to 1976, Bliss treated the roads, using waste oil that he had obtained from Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, a company that manufactured Agent Orange. An investigation into Bliss' practices elsewhere led to testing of the soil in Times Beach in 1982. The roads had been paved over by then, but the EPA found dioxin levels in the soil that were 300 times the level considered safe at the time. Other toxins were also found. In 1985, the town was evacuated and disincorporated. Tons of soil were incinerated over the next few years, and the site is now the home of Route 66 State Park.

6. Silverton, Colorado

Silverton lies in San Juan County, an area once dotted with gold and silver mines. Water flows from the remains of the mines, carrying heavy metals out and into streams. Local volunteers have made great strides in cleaning up the polluted streams with artificial wetlands and barricades in some mines, but ran into a roadblock in The Clean Water Act. Provisions in the law would make the volunteers, by their acts, responsible for bringing the streams completely up to federal standards. The alternative is to do nothing and let water running from the mines return to their previous pollution levels. The passage of a Good Samaritan bill that would protect those who did not cause the initial pollution from liability while cleaning it up would put the volunteers back in business. Image by Wikimedia contributor Tewy.

This list barely scratches the surface of the many toxic towns in the US. Then there are those sites in which the damage and/or danger has yet to be discovered. You can check to see where the federal Superfund sites are near you.

Good for You, Good for the Environment: 'Plogging' Combines Jogging With Picking Up Trash

If you can’'t motivate yourself to maintain a jogging habit for your own sake, try doing it for the sake of the planet. That's the thinking behind plogging: an eco-friendly Swedish fitness trend that's made its way to the U.S.

As Mashable reports, plogging (a mash-up of "jogging" and the Swedish word plocka, meaning "to pick") is simply going for a jog and picking up any litter you see along your route. The trash-collecting portion of the activity requires some bending and squatting, which adds variety to your workout routine. And at the end of your run, your neighborhood is a cleaner place for its residents—human and animal alike.

Improperly discarded trash can seriously hurt and even kill wildlife if it's ingested. Cities can hire people to clean up excess litter, but it comes at a high cost. According to a 2013 story in the Los Angeles Times, communities in California spend close to half a billion dollars a year keeping litter out of waterways.

Plogging alone won't solve the world’s litter problem, but if every jogger suddenly became a plogger, that would be a huge step in the right direction. Looking for a way to jump on the trend? The fitness app Lifesum now includes a plogging option for users.

[h/t Mashable]

Palm Trees in Canada? It Could Happen, Thanks to Climate Change

Human-caused global warming has the potential to transform coastlines, weather patterns, and entire populations. According to a new study published in Scientific Reports, the creep of palm trees into higher latitudes could be another sign that our planet is changing. If our climate continues to warm, the tropical flora could soon be spotted as far north as Canada.

In the new study, reported by Earther, researchers from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and two Canadian institutions looked at the temperature tolerances of palm species best suited for chillier weather. Many varieties don't need a year-round tropical climate to thrive: As long as the average temperature for the coldest month of the year for the region is above 36°F, some palms can grow in northern latitudes. This is why you can see palm trees in Greenville, North Carolina, where average temperatures for January fall above 36°F, but not Washington D.C., where average January temperatures tend to dip below that number.

But that could soon change. As is the case with most northern states, average temperatures in D.C. are rising and winters are getting milder, which means it's shaping up to be an inviting habitat for palm trees. Not all palm species tolerate the same climatic conditions, and the effects of the species' competition with native and non-native plants in more northerly regions remains to be seen. But if the palms do migrate that far north in the coming years, the Northeast, Northwest, and even parts of Canada could be next.

A future of palm trees in Canada isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Winters in these areas are already warm enough for people to plant palm trees in their gardens. In a controlled environment, these trees can flower and spread fruit, but average temperatures will need to climb a little higher before palm seedlings can survive in the wild.

[h/t Earther]


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