The Challenge of Cleaning up Toxic Sites Is More Complex Than We Might Hope

OSU chemist, students study carcinogens in Superfund Sites already cleaned up

Note: I enjoy intersecting with scientists who are associated with universities that are now struggling to keep afloat, for many reasons to include the rise of the admin class, deanlets, non-academic departments, states lowering the matching rate to pay for faculty, presidents of universities making way too much money but throwing more at the athletic departments; and, alas, these vibrant and fully-packed schools — supposedly the smartest and brightest —  have continuously sold out by taking bribe money from major corporations to shunt true research away from the capitalists’ intended and unintended crimes of their engines of profit.

I think, though, it’s good to shift from my radicalized (root deep) perspective and narrative to a more down played newspaper style. I have sent this to the editor of the newspaper I have been working with to promote environmental concerns in the area I know call home — since December 2018.

So, here, a story that on the surface is a sciency piece to bring the small communities that read the newspaper a chance at seeing some of the super stars at the university — home of the beavers — that is 50 miles away as a main campus and with a marine sciences teaching and research facility in the town of Newport:

The Challenge of Cleaning up Toxic Sites Is More Complex Than We Might Hope

Analytical and organic chemistry were on display April 25 in Newport, and as a science buff and former science reporter, I find it fascinating to glean from a Ph.D.’s rarefied research pertinent information for the lay person. In this case, the average reader of the Times-News.

For one Oregon State University chemist — who was once a research scientist for Proctor and Gamble before her current 16 years at OSU — the big question she is preoccupied with ties into thousands of remediation sites in the country: Is the remediation making these sites more toxic?

For our Newport area, the public is lucky to have researchers, experts, artists and others speak about their research and projects at the Hatfield Marine Sciences Center. One such speaker, Staci Simonich, OSU VP for Research Operations & Integrity and chemistry professor, presented her deep study into a by-product of the incomplete combustion of organic matter.

Simonich’s research presentation, “Is Remediation Worth It?:  The Potential for Remediation to Make Soils and Waterways More Toxic,” has huge implications for every American since, first, what she’s studying —  Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — are ubiquitous and are known carcinogens and disruptors of DNA, as in producing birth defects. Second, we pay billions a year to clean up sites contaminated with PAH’s vis-à-vis industries associated with fossil fuel and coal extraction, processing and burning.

The OSU chemist, who supports a cadre of graduate students also researching PAHs, posits an age-old question: Is the cure worse than the disease?

Her team’s research is both compelling and, in some sense, earth shattering in a world of continued growth of industrialization, the burning of biomass (forests, jungle), and fossil fuel production processes such as hydraulic fracturing, AKA fracking.

“Our results to date indicate that previously unidentified PAH breakdown products form in the environment and during remediation of Superfund sites,” she states.  “As the research continues, we will be able to assess which remediation technologies minimize their formation and if they pose a hazard to human health.”

The chemistry is somewhat straightforward – in the lab. However, “we are hoping to try to understand the transformation process of PAHs in a highly complex media – soil.” Deploying the fields of toxicology and chemistry will help engineers to understand what is causing the toxicity to stay the same or go up even after bioremediation.

These aromatic compounds are also found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust and in the smoke (and food) of barbecuing foods. The leeching out of soils into waterways is one way they bioaccumulate in the food-web.

In the end, for the average person, the lifetime cancer risks and the best bang for the buck are two overriding concerns. Oil spills on land and in water are regular occurrences – thousands and thousands a year, not of the Exxon Valdez or Gulf Coast variety and size. Many compounds are formed from the chemical evolutionary process of remediating a fouled site.

Simonich stated that we just do not know the toxicity of these metabolites created in the process of bioremediation.

The cheapest and most effective is composting using all sorts of complex organic substances mixed into the contaminated soil. Included in the clean-up process is biostimulation, bioaugmentation, phytoremediation at the site.

“There is no magic bug to cleaning up a site. In most cases, there are decreases in toxicity but not to a safe level,” she told the audience.

One area she and her students have studied is the SEE method of dealing with contaminated sites – steam enhanced extraction. There is an injection well, where steam is pumped in, turning into hot water that then moves the oil through the transportation process underground where the oil/water mix can then be pumped out. “The steam enhanced extraction process could increase toxicity,” she warned.

We also have to dispose of the water/oil mixture once pumped out.

Luckily for chemists like Simonich, they can get DNA and birth defect results from some of these remediated soils’ toxicity levels not through human subjects but by using a zebra-fish specifically raised to test developmental toxicity.

Here, the hours past fertilization tell an interesting story about cell damage, or genes that have been knocked out because of, say, soil contaminated by coal tar which is a big issue for the southeast.

As common as electrical and cable poles are in Lincoln County, many readers might not realize there is an unintended cancer causing consequence of the chemical treatment of wooden poles to keep them from rotting and decaying. Creosote is a culprit in many sites across the country where the soil is polluted through production and application of the substance.

For instance, the poison — a dark brown oil distilled from coal tar and used as a wood preservative containing a number of phenols, cresols, and other organic compounds – seeps into the soil initiating what Staci Simonich focuses on:  the measurement, fate, transport, and toxicity of PAH transformation products during remediation and atmospheric transport.

Another huge concern is the long-range transportation the North America relies on for goods coming from Asia. A typical trip for a container ship from say, Xiamen, China, to Oakland or Seattle, takes 19 days. The amount of smoke – containing many of the main 16 PAHs – is astronomical.

The implications are vast, as the wind currents move the particulates eastward where they end up precipitating out along the Pacific Coast range, and beyond, due to the cold condensation process. So Chinese diesel smoke from container ships ends up leaching out into our soils and waterways, again, affecting the health of both humans and non-humans alike.

I posed a question to her about just how safe are all the brownfields redeveloped throughout the USA – old railroad yards, mill and factory sites that have been in disuse and then re-purposed for prime real estate planned developments as more and more cities shift from manufacturing to services.

The chemist winced some, nodded her head, and basically indicated that we have no idea just what new compounds and off-shoots have been percolating through the soils and just how hazardous to human development and health they might be.

Staci Simonich Lab

End note: So, as many of my friends have stated, why is it us, the average person, who has to pay both the ecological/health costs of these capitalist systems as well as pay to mitigate the other parts of attempting to clean up the toxic mess?

We can’t blame China, when corporations have made a million Faustian Bargains with insane business leaders and greedy rich people who will capitalize on any means necessary to corner markets, kill competition, thwart ecosocialism, squeeze local economies, bring human suffering through unchecked mining, harvesting, burning and drives for more and more economies of scale business mispractices.

I will remind my readers that we have so many cascading issues at hand, beyond the existential crisis of global warming/world without ice.   We have microplastics in every human’s feces and have zero idea what that means to the human physiology. We have the kissing bug moving north in the USA, a seemingly benign insect story, right? Fueled by global warming in the USA

Benign? And, the conservative scientists are not yet going to hands down say the spread of the species into the USA starting in 1880 and now moving north to northern states is a result of climate change. Alas, this is why many in the world I align with are so skeptical of the sciences and the academics arena where science is touted but not politicized, which it should be!

Triatomine bugs, more commonly known as kissing bugs, are called as such because of their behavior of biting humans in the face, particularly near the mouth or eyes, and often when the human is sleeping.

Kissing bugs are common in places with warmer climates such as in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Australia, but they have since been spotted in many U.S. states. In particular, kissing bugs have been spotted in southern states since the 1800s, but recently they are also being observed in northern states as well.

Unfortunately, the insects are carriers of Chagas disease, which is a condition that can cause fever, mild swelling, or in some cases inflammation of the heart or brain muscles. If left untreated, it can enter a chronic phase and even last for a lifetime.

The infection, however, does not come from the bite itself, but from the fecal matter of the insect, which gets smeared at the wound when the bitten person scratches.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 300,000 people with Chagas Disease in the United States, but that the number may be rising. Most of the cases are of people who got the infection after living in or traveling to South or Central America. As such, the agency has since set up education courses about Chagas disease for physicians and nurses.

As I teach and write a short book on the hazards of bad education, and the good, bad and ugly of US public education, I understand there are massive shifts in the way people think, or can’t think. “The Road Beckons” in Counterpunch:

Although I often took my students’ anti-intellectualism personally, I knew that their attitudes had developed in an accommodating milieu. Beginning roughly with the Reagan years, the colleges and universities transformed themselves into business-like corporations: marketing experts, corporate titles for academic officers, patent shopping, shilling for business paraded as public interest research, distance “learning,” grotesquely high salaries for those who bring in the most money, million-dollar coaches, education as product, students as consumers, the de-funding of the humanities and social sciences, and the general cheapening of learning. As business values consumed the colleges, class sizes shot up and more part-timers were hired. To compensate for lower pay and harder work, teachers began to cut corners, dumbing-down their classes in the process. This meant that less competent teachers could be hired, and this fit in nicely with the work-averse attitudes of so many students. Students flocked to easy teachers and soft majors, like business and communications, and the schools got worse and worse.

Inherently true is the fact that we again, simple bright people that we are, have to pay the ferryman — business, war lords, toll-tax-fine collectors — to live, and that living is now on a razor’s edge, so much closer to everyone in the world now being born mutated, knocked off genes, continual chronic illness and chronic way of thinking. Here, farmer, older than I am, Joe, from Merced, California:

Paul

The thing that chaps my balls the most is how Fukashima along with an estimated 450 plants worldwide along with 60 under construction,* each one a potential environmental nightmare long after man has gone the way of the buffalo, has fallen completely off the environmental communities radar. This atomic nightmare from Hell brought to us by those that bring good things to life/GE, is rarely talked about even among the most devote environmentalists. Many in the environmental community look to nuclear as being part of a green solution. It’s fine tuned insanity. Fukashima will continue to pollute the ocean long after today’s children are dead and gone, spewing its radiation like a drunken sailor on shore leave spews his puke.

And the other thing that really twists my nuts in a knot is how these corporations that cause all these environmental nightmares are let completely off the hook for the cleanup of their messes. Everyone of the corporations are LLC’s, limited liability corporations, that in the event that they truly fuck the goose that laid the golden egg to death, are allowed to file bankruptcy and reform as a new entity, leaving the victims to deal with the results of their negligence. The CEO’s and the top brass of these corporations make out like bandits. Hell they don’t even cover their faces with bandanas anymore while they hold you at gun point. PG&E is doing that right now in California. Look back at every super screw-up by these corporations and you’ll see it’s the people effected by their misdeeds along with the taxpayers that pickup the tab.

My objection to the Green New Deal is that it shouldn’t be up to us to pay for the GND but rather the corporations that have taken us to the brink of collapse. Those are the ones that should have their assets confiscated to pay for the GND. They’ve screwed the public for their profit seeking for years. Now it’s time for the public to make love to them against their will. The public as you have said before Paul, didn’t get to vote to have our water destroyed, our air polluted, our oceans filled with plastic, the people that benefited from foisting this shit on us shouldn’t get to vote on us confiscating their assets to clean up what they created.

I’ve written about it before, being verbally attacked at the farmer’s market one day for questioning the idea of people running to raise money for breast cancer victims. My question to the attacker was why don’t you run to raise money to hold the corporations that create the conditions that cause cancer accountable and throw their sorry asses in jail? Prevention is worth a pound of cure right? Why won’t the public hold these profiteers accountable? It was as though I killed a government mule, having the audacity to criticize people trying to help the victims of cancer.

I don’t pretend to have any answers, but until as Geoff Beckman today quotes, H.L. Mencken who wrote, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats.”

I know of no greater group of people deserving of such a destiny than the corporate oligarchy and their minions in government.

Joe

So, the corporations need their Little Eichmanns to succeed and to formulate their schemes at indenturing most of us to their dirty, greedy, illegal and unethical practices. And now, the marketing of the environmental crisis, and it’s rarely now the crises of pollution, fence line communities sucking in all the vapors of plastics and polymers. Rarely do we care about the hundreds of thousands of carcinogens spit out through industrial capitalism. Rarely do we think what it means to have nanoparticles coursing through our bodies, messing with glands and nervous systems and crossing the blood-brain barrier.

The horrors a bigger and more tied to the technological enslavement we have allowed ourselves to live under than the bleaching coral reefs. All bad, but imagine, how many more percentage-wise people on planet earth born with more and more mutated genes and expressions of chronic mental, intellectual and physical disease.

For a bit of anti-NGD ending, John Steppling:

Our thought, so enslaved to instrumental logic, a logic that demands even superficial and meaningless *solutions*, cannot conceive a Nature that is not a colonial externality. That Nature, that which ostensibly everyone is trying to save (except for those who aren’t) seems just out of mental reach. The Garden of Eden story is very telling in a sense here. The cultic think is one that reflexively tolerates brutality and even fascist domination if it helps save the planet. That is certainly the way the marketing of new green projects sees it — lesser evil-ism in a sense, with apocalyptic overtones. And with every new threat or prediction the bourgeoisie double down on repressing their own terror, and double down projecting it outward onto those who will not fall in line. Nature, the planet Nature, is increasingly abstracted and these adumbrated narratives or story-lines are scanned and their linkage to the economic engine of society is repressed, pushed ever further back out of conscious reflection. The cultic neo New Age concerns for humanity have compartmentalized to such a degree that even ongoing Western genocides are barely mentioned. The economic logic of Capital has subsumed notions of a future, of value and concern and care and empathy. Saving the planet means tolerating the lesser evil. It is the derivatives market logic in a certain sense.

The possible is only found through de-organizing the instrumental. I fear the right image might trigger mass executions — not by the state (though that, too, I suppose) but by the bourgeoisie, the white concerned American.

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. He organized Part-time faulty in Washington State. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his autobiography, weekly or bi-weekly musings and hard hitting work in chapter installments, at LA Progressive. He blogs from Waldport, Oregon. Read his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam, coming out Jan. 2020 from Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.