The importance of shining a light on hidden toxic histories

Indianapolis proudly proclaims Elvis the final showRobert Kennedy’s speech in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as well as the Indianapolis 500. There’s a memorial for 9/11, an Indianapolis 500 memorial, a Medal of Honor Memorial, and the statue of the former NFL football player Peyton Manning.

The thing that is not widely known by locals and hardly anyone else is that it hosts one of the most important dry-cleaning Superfund facilities across the U.S.

From 1952 until the year 2008, Tuchman Cleaners washed clothes with perchloroethylene, also known as PERC, which is a neurotoxin that could be a carcinogen. Tuchman owned an entire chain of cleaners across the city. They took clothes to a plant at Keystone Avenue for cleaning. Keystone Avenue was also the place where the used solution was stored within an underground tank.

Inspectors discovered volatile organic compounds in leaky tanks and spills that could have occurred in 1989. In 1994, an underground puddle was spreading to an aquifer nearby. At the time that the EPA was involved in 2011, it was clear that the chemicals in the underground plume were saturating over a mile beneath the residential areas, eventually reaching the well that provides potable water for the town.

Geographer Owen Dwyer, earth scientist Gabe Filippelli, and I researched as well as wrote on the environmental and social background that dry cleaners have in Indianapolis. We were shocked by the fact that only a few people who were not in the dry cleaning and environmental management professions were aware of the ecological harm.

There aren’t any memorials or markers. There isn’t any mention of it – or any other evidence of contamination in Indianapolis’s several museums. This silence is sometimes referred to as ” environmental amnesia” or ” collective forgetting.”

Society celebrates heroes and remembers tragic events. But where is environmental damage? What if we thought of environmental harm not just as a policy or science issue but as part of the past? What would happen when pollution, as well as the loss of biodiversity and climate change, was thought of as part of our common history?

The slow, violent force of contamination

Environmental harm usually happens slowly and is often hidden from view. This could be the reason there isn’t much public discussion and remembrance. As of 2011, Princeton English Professor Rob Nixon came up with a term to describe this type of environmental destruction known as slow violence.

When underground storage tanks let go, shipwrecks corrode coal ash ponds leak, and everlastingly, chemicals get propagate and the accelerating spread of contaminated soil and water isn’t attracting the attention that larger environmental catastrophes do.

Some of the most dramatic disasters such as the nuclear explosion on Three Mile Island – are not forgotten. However, the majority of environmental damage is subtle and is easy to overlook. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Certain groups benefit from concealing the environmental costs and the remediation process. Social scientists Scott Frickel and James R. Elliott have looked into urban pollution, and have identified three causes for its recurrence and ubiquity.

First, in urban areas, small-scale factories auto repair shops, dry cleaners, and other light industries can only be open for a decade or two years, which makes it difficult to regulate them and keep track of the environmental impact they have as time passes. At the point that pollution is detected, most facilities have been closed or bought from new proprietors. The polluters have a financial stake in avoiding being a part of the issue, as they could be held responsible and compelled to clean up the mess.

In the same way, urban areas tend to have changing demographics. Residents tend to be unaware of the historical impact on their environment.

In the end, it may be politically acceptable to ignore and overlook the negative effects of pollution. Cities are likely to be concerned that exposing toxic history can deter investments and reduce property values. Likewise, the politicians aren’t willing to fund projects that might yield long-term benefits but have cost in the short term. Indianapolis was one such city. It has tried for decades to avoid stopping the flow of raw sewage through the White River and Fall Creek and Fall Creek, arguing that it was too costly to manage. Only when it was required by an agreement decree was the city able to begin to address the issue.

Toxic legacy issues are also difficult to identify since their effects are concealed by distance and time. The anthropologist Peter Little traced the outsourcing of recycling of electronics, which is sent from the countries where electronics are purchased and used, to countries like Ghana, in which the labor cost is low and environmental regulations are not as strict.

There are also the harmful effects of military conflict that linger on even after the fighting has been stopped and troops have returned to their homes. Geologist and historian Daniel Hube has documented the long-term environmental impacts on the environment of World War I munitions.

After the war, all unused and unexploded bombs, as well as chemical weapons, needed to be destroyed. In France, the site called Place a Gaz, where many thousands of chemicals were burnt. The soils of today are found to contain extremely high concentrations of arsenic, as well as various heavy metals.

A century later, after the conclusion of the war, nothing is growing on the polluted, barren landscape.

Toxic tours and teaching times

There’s a rising movement to make the history of toxic people more obvious.

in Providence, Rhode Island, artist Holly Ewald founded the Urban Pond Procession to draw people’s attention to Mashapaug Pond, which was affected by the Gorham Silver factory. The artist collaborated with local members to design wearable sculptures, puppets, and huge fish. All of them were paraded and worn in the annual parade, which ran between 2008 and 2017.

The Urban Pond Procession took place every summer for 10 seasons within Providence, R.I. Photo by Mary Beth Meehan, UPP Collection, Providence Public Library

Cultural Anthropologist Amelia Fiske collaborated with artist Jonas Fischer to create the graphic novel ” Toxico,” that will be released in 2024. The book depicts the effects of petroleum on the Ecuadorian Amazon, as well as the struggles of people fighting for justice for the environment.

Toxic tours can help educate visitors about the history, the causes, and the consequences of environmental damage. For instance, Ironbound Community Corporation located in Newark, New Jersey, offers tours of affected sites, like the site that was the site of an old Agent Orange manufacturing facility and the site where the sludge that is deposited in the sediment is laced with dioxin, a carcinogen. The tour also passes by a detention center, which is located on a brownfield that has had industrial-grade remediation done because this is the standard for all prisons.

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