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New Science: Where is all this Going?

I could ask where all this is going in reference to any number of weird or repugnant things you come across in the newspapers, blogs, and real life. This week it refers to an article in the March 4th issue of New Scientist describing a “coral forensics expert.” Imagine that: a detective that investigates reef murders. And there’s more than one of them on the planet. Where’s all this going?

Interestingly, one of these detectives is working on the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Dr. Illiana Baums had just finished sampling the Gulf of Mexico’s Leiopathes glabberina when BP’s oil rig blew a gasket. So? Well, that means she’s got current baseline data with which to measure damage from this oil spill.

This kind of information, this data point, is hard to come by. Believe it or not we do not have continuous monitors hooked up to every one of the 200 million species on the planet, let alone specific numbers from the thousands of places they live. Sadly that’s the exact information you need to determine the damage from an ecological disaster. Considering the varying opinions on last year’s Gulf spill, you need the data to just determine if it was indeed a disaster in the first place. Who do you believe? What’s really going on? Where’s it going? If you don’t have baseline information on the health of an ecosystem such as a coral reef, it’s very hard to prove anything to skeptics. They hardly care, let alone believe. In fact, who does care about the health of our coral reefs? Not many people. Not when protecting them might mean it costs more to drive our cars around.

But everything is connected and death of a reef will come back to bite you in the ass at some point. Mark my words. That’s where all this is heading.

So we have a dearth of ecological information that’s going to come back to bite us. I know you’re shrugging your shoulders, but I’ve seen the future and it’s not pretty. The future is my little creek. I live in the country, farm country. What that means is population density is low. What that means is that the idiots like me, who live out where the buses don’t run, do not matter. There is safety in numbers and out here, there ain’t none. When I got the letter that said the waste haulers were going to dump sludge on my neighbors’ cornfields, I was more than a little concerned.

In our area, sludge dumping has a bit of a history. Distant communities have sued over deaths and disease associated with sludge dumping. Who knows if there’s really a connection between spongy lung diseases and dumped sludge because in our post-industrial days, industries pay off people who sue, even if they’re wrong. The plaintiffs, that is. We never get to the bottom of anything because people with money don’t care about having a day in court. They just want to get on with it.

In the case of the waste haulers in question, I can see why. They are under contract to dispose of the waste from no less than 38 municipalities and other entities. That’s got to be a lot of dough, cabbage, scratch, whatever you want to call it.

I called up the number they gave us in case we had any questions. The company rep assured me they’d be dumping at most one or two times a year. They’ve actually been doing it for about five years and it’s not that a big of a deal. It smells for a week and then we’re back on track. It’s not nearly as much of a nuisance as when the duck manure gets spread. Anyway, our sludge dumpers have been at it for five years now and the only reason they sent out the new letter is because they’ve added new inputs. In other words they’ve contracted with more communities that don’t know what to do with their shit so they pay the waste hauler to take it away to where I live so I have to deal with it.

Of course there are all kinds of monitoring and rules and limits to protect those of us who live contiguously with the fields in question. I’m quite safe the man told me.

I know this, I used to have an NPDES permit. I know there’s monitoring in place and rules and limits and they wouldn’t think of putting paint thinner on my neighbors’ fields which would then end up in my creek.

But I want more assurances. Preferably from someone who’s not making money on the transaction. So I called the second number they suggested, the PA DEP. Assurances abounded. The guy pretty much reminded me that there is monitoring in place and rules and limits. And that there would never be a problem with paint thinner in my creek.

Which I believe because I spent about a $1000 last year to test the creek for paint thinner. It’s not there, but you know what is? Coliform. Of course, every creek has coliform. The question is does it have more coliform than it had before? And the answer is, how the hell do I know when I have no baseline data? Dr. Baums had not made it to my creek before the start of the sludge dumping.

I’m sure everything is above board. I’m sure the monitoring is going fine. I’m sure they are not allowing paint thinner and medical waste into the sludge. There’s no industry left in America, anyway so I don’t really have to worry about paint thinner, which in this blog rant stands in metaphorically for any kind of repugnant industrial waste. Medical waste? I’m not so sure. Everybody and their brother is on Prozac and Cialis so there’s little chance medical waste doesn’t make it into the waste stream somewhere. My water test didn’t show any, though, so I remain unconcerned about untoward amounts of hormones in my dog’s bathing water, aka the creek.

The point of all this, though, is that this problem is never going to go away. The more paint thinner and medicine we decide we must have, the more of it will have to be disposed of in some kind of way. And those idiots who live where the buses don’t run will increasingly be the recipients of it. And we don’t have any baseline data so if strange lumps start appearing on the backs of our knees, we’re going to have a tough time proving anything untoward. That’s pretty much what the DEP rep said. I may have embellished a bit.

To be honest what good would baseline data do me anyway? The EPA is getting its funding cut. Can the PA DEP be far behind? Who’s going to take action when the lumps show up? Do you really think that anybody cares if a little Sr90 gets dumped into my creek? A little benzene or Agent Orange? The only thing that people care about is not having to pay taxes. Most people live in the city, they don’t have to deal with the health of my personal wild space. National Parks, sure, but private property? No.

As if nature can be fenced in. Mark my words, my little creek debacle is going to come back and bite everyone in the ass. Check the back of your knees after your visit to Yellowstone. We’re all connected.

Meantime, I am on my own. I could solve this problem by moving back to the city to avoid the eventual decline of my little creek and quality of life. Apart from losing my sanity, though, there is a worse problem that a move to the city will entail. People in urban areas wind up being guinea pigs in hellacious governmental research projects. Doesn’t make sense to test in the wide open spaces where the buses don’t run. Nope. Gotta have a statistically large enough sample. The people that cram themselves like sardines into areas too small to change their minds in are perfect for that.

So there you are. That’s where all this is going, and there is no escape.

Sue Lange

Check out Book View Cafe’s benefit anthology for the Gulf Oil Spill Relief fund, “Breaking Waves.”

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