Pollution: Remediation and Rebirth, But At What Cost?
Pollution. It’s all around us.
I don’t care where you live, man has altered it in some way. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
There are many examples of places where people’s lives were turned upside down by pollution, like the former residents of the town of Centralia, PA. While nobody seems to know for sure what caused it, the town has been on fire for approximately fifty-two years. It was either one of many fires at the town’s landfill that spread into the abandoned coal mine nearby or a fire that was never extinguished in 1932 that occurred an an adjacent mine that took thirty years to reach the Centralia landfill site. The Feds eventually offered to buy out property owners in 1984 and most took advantage of that. There were seven townsfolk who refused to leave. After lengthy court battles they gained the right to stay and live their lives with the understanding that upon their death that their property would be taken through eminent domain.
Then there is Love Canal in New York State, the nation’s first “Superfund” site. In the forties, Hooker Chemical Company used that area to dispose of large quantities of hazardous chemicals. Eight-hundred families and around four hundred homes ended up being demolished in the aftermath of that debacle. It was remediated using the funds created after the passage of the Superfund bill, officially known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Once reporters unearthed what was going on there in the late seventies it took until 2004 until the site was removed from the Superfund list.
Today the states with the most Superfund sites are New Jersey (113 sites), California (97 sites) and Pennsylvania (95 sites). The state of North Dakota is the only state in the nation with no sites.
According to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), as of this writing, the Red Dog Mine, which is one of the world’s largest zinc and lead mines, located 82 miles north of Kotzebue, Alaska is rated as the most toxic place in America.
Gary, Indiana; Battle Mountain, Nevada; Luling, Louisiana: These sites bring visions of heavy industrial pollution to mind. In my home state there are nine Superfund sites, three of them being former U.S. Army ordnance facilities and the rest related to heavy industry and chemical production.
During my stint in government I was involved in discussions from time to time about Brownfields, which are former industrial or commercial sites where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination. In layman’s terms, the difference between a Superfund site and a Brownfield site is that the Superfund sites pose a real threat to human health and/or the environment. Brownfields, on the other hand, do not pose serious health or environmental threat. The degree of remediation is far less invasive on a Brownfield site.
The demise of the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing in the Rust Belt corridor of the United States has created thousands of Brownfield sites calling for millions of dollars in studies and remediation grants to bring these dead and contaminated sites back to life.
Pittsburgh, PA has been the benefit of many Brownfield projects. The South-Side Works, Washington’s Landing and the Pittsburgh Technology Center to name a few. All of these sites were former steel mills or other heavy industrial sites that were cleaned up and redeveloped successfully using a combination of public and private investment to make it happen.
Before that first delectable slice of cheesecake was consumed at the Cheesecake Factory or the first bucket of popcorn was sold at the Southside Works Cinema, the South-Side Works — formally known as the location of the LTV Steel Mill (J & L before it) — benefitted from a brownfield and mitigation plan. That plan helped pay for the demolition of the former mill site and the subsequent clean up of the land it once occupied.
Cleaning up the site and redeveloping it allowed for the land to be used once again as a catalyst for job creation and tax revenue. While an associate position at the GNC does not even come close to replacing the job of one of the 14,000 steelworkers that toiled on the seven-mile site in its heyday, its rebirth has had a positive impact on the city and surrounding area, monetarily and specifically, environmentally.
Growing up in a steel town I have memories that are rather unique when it comes to the sights, sounds and smells that permeated from the mill that loomed large in the north end of the city. In its prime, 13,000 people worked there, along with other plants that either supported the creation of or consumed the steel produced there. The first parts of the mill were built in 1909. As the decades rolled by the mill expanded. It helped build a city, fight WWII and provide a livelihood for thousands of families over decades until it all hit the fan in 1981. The mill has been suffering a slow death ever since.
I remember the graphite on my feet as a kid after running in the grass, still wet from the morning dew. The smells in certain parts of town that would make your eyes water. The eerie red glow in the night sky coming from the slag pits. The sounds of the whistles, bells and alarms along with the random thundering booms that are created by machinery and steel making procedures that are so massive you really cannot comprehend it unless you actually see it. Waiting on the trains hauling ore with the steam billowing off of them in the winter as they lumbered by. The sound of the train whistle at night if the wind was blowing right coming up the valley. My Pap and Dad worked there. Pap ran the Diesel Shop, Dad worked in the Materials Utilization Department. My Father-In-Law worked his career in the Tin Mill as a line operator.
Weirton Steel stopped making steel about 13 years ago, now regulated to a finishing mill with about 850 employees. The majority of the land the mill sits on has been sold to a company that is in the scrapping and remediation business. I have watched them slowly dismantle large swaths of the mill over the last few years. Last summer they imploded the Basic Oxygen Plant, what was once known as “The Mill of the Future” when it was built in 1967. It was a massive structure. It is where the hulking ladles of molten steel were poured into slabs that would eventually be rolled into coils. Huge overhead cranes moved the brick-lined ladles that weighed around 30 tons that could hold up to 175 tons of that molten steel.
Just imagine how strong the building was that it could hold the cranes plus the full ladles moving along the superstructure. I never thought they would be able to knock it down as a kid. They did though, just like all the other integrated steel mills up and down the Ohio Valley. Flattened. Gone forever and with it America’s ability to produce steel as it once could. It was a sad day when the BOP came down. Everyone knew steel making in Weirton was long gone but watching that structure fall into a pile of dust and debris really drove it home once and for all.
Parcels of the mill have already been redeveloped and there are supposedly big things in store for the rest of the property once it is remediated.
Today I read a report by the EPA that states that my area now meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for sulfur dioxide in addition to all other federal air quality standards set to protect public health. That is a good thing. I have noticed the difference over the years. The sights, sounds and smells that I remember from my youth are pretty much gone. I can stand on my porch now at midnight and hear nothing but a coyote off in the distance or the very faint train whistle blowing in the wind. Silence, it can be deafening for sure. No more air pollution; the smokestacks are either dead or gone all together. I can remember it being said many times growing up, “that’s not pollution, that’s production, that’s MONEY coming out of those stacks.”
Yes, we have clean air now. Almost as clean as it was the day E.T. Weir looked down on the valley and visualized his mill over a century ago. The cost of that clean air today is thousands of jobs, livelihoods gone forever.
So now we wait. What will rise up from the ashes of what was once the largest employee owned business in the country, the State of West Virginia’s largest employer and one of the largest producers of steel in the world? Clean air is a start; Brownfield investment is coming too, I’m sure. The land is too valuable to sit idle for very long. As an example, the former mill site is smack-dab in the center of the all the shale plays that are fueling today’s domestic oil and gas boom. I am sure the land is on someone’s radar as it gets closer to being ready for redevelopment.
Environmentalists will argue that the land should be put back to what it was before the mill was built. Realists however, will argue that the land is ripe for development and should be utilized as such. Somewhere in the middle of this debate is the answer. I am sure whatever the answer ends up being, the days of noxious smoke pouring into the sky day and night are never coming back.
Perhaps there is another E.T. Weir out there that will build something that will last the next hundred years. Maybe he or she will look at the whole picture this time, and consider the environment along with the potential economical impact his or her vision will have on the valley.
Time will tell…
E Pluribus Unum