Friday, May 10, 2013

"Beautiful Tar, the outcome bright..."

Last Friday I posted a list of reasons why bottled water isn't a good idea. It was taken from a book about public water policy and mostly leaned on the environmental burden of plastic manufacturing and water distribution. One reason, however, was that because the bottled water industry isn't as regulated as municipal water (tap water) it isn't as reliably safe. The book gave a couple of instances of bad bottled water but said in developed nations – such as the good ol' US of A – tap water is generally safer. I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it except that I happened to be reading another book where that definitely wasn't the case.

As I said in the other post, water isn't just for drinking; it's also used in agriculture and energy production.  And manufacturing.  And the problem for manufacturing companies, especially chemical manufacturers, is what to do with the waste products. Disposing of it safely can get expensive and eat up profits, so historically companies just dumped it in a river and it was on its way to the ocean – or at least it wasn't their problem anymore. Of course, a river can only take so much before people start to notice... and complain!

Toms River was just a pretty little place near the New Jersey shore when Ciba-Geigy relocated their manufacturing there in 1949. They were moving operations from Cincinnati (and the Ohio River) where they'd been making fabric dyes from petroleum and tar products for years. Before that they'd made their products in Basel, Switzerland, along the banks of the Rhine River. They purchased a large piece of wooded property and built their factory in the middle, surrounded by trees and hidden from the outside. But they didn't dump all their wastes into the river – that would have drawn complaints. Instead they burned some of it (at night to reduce complaints from the town about the smell) and built holding ponds on the property. Unfortunately those ponds weren't lined and the wastes seeped easily into the sandy soil (the level sometimes dropping as much as five feet a day) and into the groundwater that provided the growing town's drinking water. But it wasn't just Ciba polluting the town and water. In an effort to keep disposal costs down, Union Carbide paid an unscrupulous contractor to "dispose" of their wastes and it ended up being dumped in a pit in the back corner of an old egg farm.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin tells the story of how a cluster of children in Toms River (actually named Dover Township) developed cancer, and the medical sleuthing that was able to point the finger at the toxic wastes being generated nearby. And for a fairly lengthy book (460 pages) it's pretty hard to put down. Fagin covers not only Toms River but also the history of how links to cancer were uncovered along the way – and it's a fascinating story. I found his explanations of how cancers happen (there are about 150 different kinds) as well as the history of the chemical industry very interesting, not to mention disturbing – the part about "salvation" in the title is misleading, since there wasn't much of it in the story. The science gets a little technical, but not overly so. And it's plain from the beginning who the bad guys in this story are, but Fagin does a good job explaining why it's so difficult to prove blame in such cases (even if his telling doesn't always feel very balanced). And as for blame, Fagin makes it clear it wasn't just the chemical companies – plenty of people from politicians to plant workers were perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on.

(One of the more ironic twists is the story of Reich Farm where Nick Fernicola dumped Union Carbide's toxic waste.  The family wanted to sell the egg farm but allowed Fernicola to "store" the drums of waste for $40 a year to help pay the property taxes.  Instead their property became a "Superfund" site and they're still trying to sell it.  Fernicola never even paid them the $40.)

But as for me, I guess I have faith in the local water company because I'm still drinking tap water at home.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

No comments:

Post a Comment