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Toxic Towns: 6 Cases of Polluted Places

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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.

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A Coral Reef in Mexico Just Got Its Own Insurance Policy
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The Puerto Morelos coral reef, about 20 miles south of Cancún, is one of Mexico’s most popular snorkeling attractions. It also serves a vital purpose beyond drawing tourists. Like all reefs, it provides a buffer for the coast, protecting nearby beaches from brutal waves and storms. And so the beachside businesses that rely on the reef have decided to protect the coral as they would any other vital asset: with insurance. As Fast Company reports, the reef now has its own insurance policy, the first-ever policy of its kind.

Coral reefs are currently threatened by increasing ocean acidification, warmer waters, pollution, and other ocean changes that put them at risk of extinction. Mass coral bleachings are affecting reefs all over the world. That’s not to mention the risk of damage during extreme storms, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

Businesses in Puerto Morelos and Cancún pay the premiums for the Reef & Beach Resilience and Insurance Fund, and if the reef gets damaged, the insurance company will pay to help restore it. It’s not just an altruistic move. By protecting the Puerto Morelos reef, nearby businesses are protecting themselves. According to The Nature Conservancy, which designed the insurance policy, coral reef tourism generates around $36 billion for businesses around the world each year. Perhaps even more importantly to coastal businesses, reefs protect $6 billion worth of built capital (i.e. anything human-made) annually.

When a storm hits, the insurance company will pay out a claim in 10 days, according to Fast Company, providing an immediate influx of cash for urgent repair. (The insurance policy is tied to the event of a storm, not the damage, since it would be hard to immediately quantify the economic damage to a reef.) The corals that break off the reef can be rehabilitated at a nursery and reattached, but they have to be collected immediately. Waiting months for an insurance payout wouldn’t help if all the damaged corals have already floated away.

The insurance policy is one of many new initiatives designed to rehabilitate and protect endangered coastal ecosystems that we now know are vital to buffering the coast from storm surges and strong waves. Coral reefs aren’t the only protective reefs: In the eastern and southern coastal U.S., some restaurants have started donating oyster shells to help rebuild oyster reefs offshore as a storm protection and ecosystem rehabilitation measure.

Considering the outsized role reefs play in coastal protection, more insurance policies may be coming to ecosystems elsewhere in the world. Hopefully.

[h/t Fast Company]

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How Louisville Used GPS to Improve Residents' Asthma
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Louisville, Kentucky has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., which is particularly bad news for the 85,000 people in surrounding Jefferson County (about 11 percent of the population [PDF]) who have been diagnosed with asthma.

The air quality situation in Louisville won’t be changing anytime soon, but a new study with sensor-equipped inhalers shows that technology can help people with asthma cope, as CityLab reports. The two-year AIR Louisville project involved the Louisville government, the Institute for Healthy Air Water and Soil, and a respiratory health startup called Propeller, which makes sensors for inhalers that can track location and measure air pollutants, humidity levels, and temperature.

Propeller's inhaler-mounted sensors allowed the researchers to monitor the relationship between asthma attacks and environmental factors and provided new insight on how air quality can change from neighborhood to neighborhood. The sensors—which are already used by doctors, but have never been deployed citywide before—can measure levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur, ozone, particulate matter, and pollen in the air, plus track location, temperature, and humidity, all of which can impact the risk of asthma attacks. The sensors send Propeller data on when, where, and how many "puffs" patients take to track how often people are resorting to emergency medication.

Propeller sent out app notifications to warn the Louisville program participants of greater risk of an asthma attack on bad air quality days, and showed them where and when the most asthma attacks happened around the city.

An inhaler with a sensor on top of it lies next to a smartphone open to the Propeller app.
Propeller

The Propeller program illuminated just how much more asthma-triggering pollution the city’s west side (predominantly home to poor, African-American residents) faces compared to other neighborhoods. The data also showed that ozone provoked an uptick in asthma attacks throughout the city, namely along highways. The study may end up influencing air quality regulations, since the researchers found that air pollutants became problematic for asthma sufferers even under the legal levels.

The program had huge short-term benefits, too, beyond collecting research for city policies. By the time it ended in late June, the study clearly had a significant impact on the nearly 1200 people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who took part. The asthma group showed a decline in average inhaler use after a year. There was an 82 percent decline in people's weekly average uses of rescue inhalers at the 12-month follow-up, and the participants had twice the number of symptom-free days. The majority of participants said they understand their asthma "very well" or "well," can better control it, and feel confident about avoiding a bad asthma attack.

Now that the program is over, the institutions involved are still working to launch new policies based on the results, like creating citywide asthma alerts and planting more trees.

[h/t CityLab]

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