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Cleaning the Rivers

[ 17 ] August 14, 2012 |

A very good piece on the trickiness of Superfund attempts to clean up rivers. Is it better to clean up the toxic sludge at the bottom of rivers flowing through industrial sites, even though it could stir up those toxins in the short term? Or is better to risk those short-term problems in order to create healthy rivers in the centuries ahead? No easy answers, that’s for sure.

Comments (17)

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  1. DrDick says:

    There is also the problem of what do you do with the toxic muck once you have excavated it. We had to deal with that here and not everyone is happy with the decision.

    • Jeremy says:

      The NYT article says they ship it out West. It sounds like they just dump it in your laps.

      • DrDick says:

        I am not sure where they mean, but it does not come here, as we have plenty of our own. I suspect it winds up in the Nevada and Utah deserts.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Whatever, most of that gunk originated in Montana mines to begin with. Don’t you people want it back?

      • DrDick says:

        No. We have been living with the toxic debris of hardrock mining in our rivers for over a century and it is not pretty. Most of those “pristine mountain streams” contain high levels of heavy metals (copper, lead, arsenic), which is why Milltown Pond was designated a Superfund site. It was poisoning local water wells. Silverbow Creek over by Butte is even worse. By the way, y’all are welcome to the costs since all the profits from over a century of mining went eat as well.

    • Bill Murray says:

      The waste should be placed in the buildings of the offending company.

  2. James E. Powell says:

    I love how the government and corporate officials use phrases like “sealed beneath a permanent cap.” But, hey, we’ll all be dead by then so it’s not our problem.

    The idea that maybe we ought to be working out how we can live without producing massive amounts of environmental damage. But that would hurt the job creators in the permanent cap industry.

    • How will working out how we can live without producing massive amounts of environmental damage clean up the toxins deposited in the Passaic River in the 1960s and 70s?

      As a matter of fact, we have made great strides in reducing the emissions of toxics since then. We aren’t polluting waterways like that anymore; we’re dealing with the legacy of practices abandoned decades ago.

  3. ironic irony says:

    “Is it better to clean up the toxic sludge at the bottom of rivers flowing through industrial sites, even though it could stir up those toxins in the short term?”

    I think they’ve had this same discussion about almost the entirety of the Hudson River for years.

    Thanks, GE!

    • ironic irony says:

      Hey, guess what? My dumb ass actually clicked the link and read the damn article like I should have! The H.R. was already mentioned.

      Please ignore my goofy self.

  4. Is it better to clean up the toxic sludge at the bottom of rivers flowing through industrial sites, even though it could stir up those toxins in the short term?

    It depends on site-specific conditions. And as the article notes, technology is advancing all the time, so burying/leaving a non-leaky source of pollution need not be a permanent solution, but a policy of buying time until future breakkthroughs make clean-up possible. Archaeologist sometimes leave promising but difficult sites untouched for the same reason – someday they’ll be able to the excavation without wrecking the site, but they just can’t do so now.

    • mpowell says:

      This is the same reason why I think people worry too much about medium term solutions like burying toxins (or storing nuclear waste). It doesn’t have to be a solution for forever. 50 years would be pretty good.

      • Adding to this line of thinking, some clean-ups are medium-term solutions, too. There is a heavily-polluted property on Tanner Street in Lowell that has solar-powered chemical clean-up thingamajigs that will be slowly, gradually cleansing the soil there for decades, during which time monitoring wells will be regularly checked to see if any of the stuff is migrating so new solar thingies can be installed elsewhere as needed.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    I’m torn on this stuff. My gut says to get the gunk out, now. My more rational side knows about the stir-it-up issue.

    The key is to not view “cap it and leave it there” as the final solution. Cap it and monitor it and revisit the issue down the road. Get the PRPs to put a pile of $ in escrow so you have a cleanup fund available down the road in case the company(ies) go belly up in the interim.

  6. Larkspur says:

    Ugh. I just read Full Body Burden: Growing Up In The Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen. Standley Lake was the go-to recreational lake in her Colorado neighborhood. It’s downwind – and downstream – from the contaminated Rocky Flats nuclear plant. It’s still used for boating, water-skiing, and dear god, for drinking water.

    And its lake bed is seriously contaminated with plutonium. A DOE report says that most of the Rocky Flats plutonium was “in a form that wouldn’t readily dissolve in water”, and would sink into the sediment. Well, okay then. So you are not allowed to (for example) take your dogs to the lake and throw balls into the water for them to fetch, or to wade into the water yourself, or to do anything that kicks up any sediment.

    Other than that, it’s perfectly safe, ’cause any accidental ingestion would be infrequent, unlikely, and no big deal anyway. Yup.

    It’s a tough question generally, whether to clean up or wait, and certainly it’s got to be decided on a case-by-case basis (type of contaminant, river or lake, etc.) But holy crap, plutonium sediment? You not only don’t close down the area, you also allow recreation and drinking water sourcing? This is insane.

    I am making myself crazier this summer, because I also read The Cigarette Century by Allen Brandt. After reading both books, I am mightily sick of the phrases “no clinical evidence” and “further studies are needed”.

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