January 1990 Issue #3 ECOLOGIA NEWSLETTER Archive

January 1990 Issue #3

This issue of ECOLOGIA Newsletter focuses upon regulatory agencies of the United States federal government, caught between conflicting demands of public opinion. In Seabrook, New Hampshire, a federal agency is advocating a nuclear power plant against citizen opposition. In Palmerton, Pennsylvania, a different federal agency is proceeding with the clean-up of an ecologically devastated area despite the apathy or opposition of most of the residents. Taken together, these stories raise a number of questions about the role of citizen actions and governmental responsiveness to environmental concerns. To what extent, and in what situations, should governmental agencies change their policies under pressure from an active minority? In what situations should governmental agencies persevere in their policies despite lack of support by the majority of the citizens?


Participation in Soviet Green Movements Increasing at All Levels

A cold winter in Europe does not seem to have cooled the enthusiasm of Soviet citizens for an ever increasing involvement in green movements. My January trip exposed me to examples of growing local, regional, national, and international involve- ment which are stunning achievements for organizations that are in most cases only a few years old.

In Moldavia, a previously fragmented network of ecology clubs has just completed the formation of a regional organization and publication of a Moldavian Green Newspaper. Now problems such as pesticide contamination can be addressed at the regional level not just as individualized local problems. For the Moldavian Greens there will undoubtedly be increased strength in numbers and coordination.

In the Baltics, local green leaders scored amazing electoral successes in fall 1989 municipal elections, and seem headed for similar results in the February 1990 elections of representatives to their regional assemblies (Supreme Soviets). Green leaders will be able to affect public policy more directly. Many are trained scientists, and as "insiders" they will apply their wealth of information and rational decision-making skills to problems that had often previously been ignored by authorities who lived too far away and thus very safely out of the range of local problems. Leaders of the Lithuanian green movement reported the development of neighborhood groups who have begun to monitor individual facilities. Such local involvement is an excellent training ground for future democratic decision makers. It is not suprising that many of these local activists have risen to municipal, regional, and even national leadership positions. Perestroika is working, here in the local green committees where old attitudes discouraging responsible political involvement are melting away, even in the dead of winter.

There are also indications of rapidly developing international connections. Environmental leaders from Leningrad to the Baltics have become active participants in conferences with other northern European nations focusing upon cleaning up the Baltic Sea. The most recent was held in the autumn of 1989. Environmental leaders will thus be able to utilize their regional and local networks to bring necessary local participation into projects that will attack Baltic Sea pollution at its multiple local sources, and guarantee long term solutions.

Western media are beginning to report the role of environmental concerns in the democractic and national movements in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Perhaps when they take a closer look they will discover that ecologists are not only part of the force that divides and challenges the established order; green consciousness and green movements may also be providing a much needed pathway to regional, national, and international cooperation in eastern Europe and the USSR.

Randy Kritkausky

Reclaiming Blue Mountain:

The Greening of a "Biological Desert" in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

For years, outsiders who drove through the city of Palmerton, Pennslyvania have observed the mountain covered with dead trees which overlooks the valley city, and commented,"Thank goodness we don't live here." Few of those travellers understood the combination of human decisions and the responses of the natural world which had "killed" the mountain forest. Similarly, few passers-by knew how complete the devastation had been - that the soil itself was so contaminated with toxic metals that living things could not survive. Earthworms and other forms of invertebrate life had vanished from the mountain. Deer and horses born in the area died before reaching maturity. Young saplings of most varieties of trees couldn't survive. Even the micro-organisms which act to decay dead wood and leaves could not survive in Blue Mountain soil. It was indeed a "biological desert", to use the words of a Penn State forest hydrologist, and "not even a dandelion would grow there."

What had brought this situation about? Palmerton had been the site of a flourishing zinc smelting industry since 1898, and smelting did not stop until December 1980. For almost 90 years, the smelters had operated, emitting zinc, lead, cadmium and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Particulates settled in the soil, and on foliage, thus entering the food chain.

Why did the people of Palmerton continue to live there without large- scale demonstrations and protests? The majority of the people in Palmerton accepted the environmental problems without challenge or criticism, because Palmerton was a "company town", and most families had members who either worked for the zinc smelting factories, or who benefited from the business of those who did. Studies documenting the severity of the contamination of the area were conducted by natural scientists from nearby universities, and representatives of federal agencies, who concentrated upon the impact upon plants and animals, not upon humans.

There have been relatively few studies of the impact of the zinc smelting pollution on the health of humans in the Palmerton area. Some studies have found a much higher incidence of lung disease in Palmerton than would otherwise be expected. Elevated cadmium and lead levels were detected in children's hair. There is no systematic documentation of long- term human health problems in the area, however. This is at least partly because of the lack of concern among the residents themselves, who have not demanded or supported intrusive personal health studies. This is in dramatic contrast to other areas of contamination, such as Love Canal in Buffalo, New York, where residents have been the motive force behind cleanup efforts. In Love Canal, community leaders themselves initiated health studies to document incidents of miscarriages and rare forms of cancer to document the significance of the environmental problems. Because of the politics of Palmerton's situation, soil problems, not human health, became the focus of clean-up efforts.

Scientists meticulously studied various forms of life in the area, documenting the incidence of different types of diseases among the larger animals, and recording the presence or absence of lichen and mosses, grasses, earthworms and slugs, shrews, beetles and mites, birds, and different species of trees in the eco-system of Blue Mountain and in a radius around it. They also dissected fish, birds and animals to see the different concentrations of metals in their organs. Scientists discovered high concentrations of zinc in the diets of the white-tailed deer (which feed on foliage contaminated by particulate emissions). The deer suffered from osteochondriasis, a disease of the cartilege of the joints, which kept fawns from growing to maturity.

It is hard to generalize about the impact of the Palmerton pollutants on other species, because their body chemistry handles heavy metals in different ways. For example, zinc proved to be very harmful to the deer, but zinc is easily excreted by humans and is not considered a hazard to humans at levels that clearly were hazardous to the deer. However, another heavy metal, cadmium, was found in very high concentrations in the soil in Palmerton's home gardens. A plant physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that residents not grow garden vegetables, "or at least that they not grow plants whose roots or leaves are eaten, where the cadmium tends to be concentrated."

Not only was Blue Mountain a biological wasteland, its soil was eroding because of the loss of tree root support. One to two feet of topsoil was washed downriver, thus spreading the contamination downstream.

The United States Federal Government became involved when Blue Mountain was put on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "Superfund" cleanup list, meaning that federal funds could be committed to improving the conditions of this "disaster area", if private industries did not act. This was a "top-down" action, on the initiative of the federal authorities, and was not a response to "grassroots" community organizing. Quite the contrary! Public sentiment in Palmerton was overwhelmingly in support of the zinc smelting companies, and hostile to the EPA representatives.

Ed Shoener, now the Director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, and then a project manager for the EPA, comments, "I've never experienced anything like that first public meeting in Palmerton. EPA officials become used to public criticism, because often we're brought in after there's a major problem, and citizens are angry and upset about their environment and their health. Usually at public meetings, EPA representatives are accused of protecting polluting industries and not moving fast enough to protect the natural environment. But that meeting at Palmerton was really different. Citizens were criticizing us for getting involved, saying they were fine, the industry was fine, and they really wanted us to go away and leave Blue Mountain alone."

Despite the lack of community support, however, the EPA proceeded with its work to revitalize Blue Mountain. To deal with the problem, the EPA realized that it was impossible to "fence off" the contaminated soil, and that removing it would just further contribute to erosion. Agronomists experimented with various solutions to re-vitalize the soil. They came up with a mixture of two waste products - sewage sludge (from nearby Allentown's wastewater treatment plant) and fly ash (from coal-fired electrical power plants in Washingtonville). The scientists first tested the mix in a greenhouse, mixing toxic soil from Blue Mountain with the sludge and fly ash, then planting different species of grass, legumes and trees. Seeds were able to germinate in this new soil! Then they planted test plots on the mountain itself. The one-acre test plots worked out very well, supporting a variety of plants, including groundcovers, grasses, and pine, oak, maple, birch and poplar trees. Deer were even observed grazing in the test areas.

In conclusion, the revegetation of Blue Mountain, which has just begun, may provide a model for efforts to reclaim ecologically devastated soil in many other parts of the world. The New Jersey Zinc Company has taken an active role in the revegetation process, and is now joining with federal and state agencies and the natural scientists. Interested visitors from other states or countries are welcome to visit Blue Mountain, and the Palmerton area, and to speak with those involved in the revegetation project.

Information for this article was obtained from the following sources: "The Smoke That Settled Over Palmerton", by Nelson Beyer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel Maryland, U.S.A. 20708, New Jersey Audobon, Summer Volume 9, No. 3, l983; also "Life After Death for Blue Mountain", by Julie Lalo, in Pennsylvania Wildlife, Vol. VIII, No. 5.

Ed Shoener is now the Director of the Wilkes-Barre office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, which is responsible for the area of Northeastern Pennsylvania. His current interests are in controlling the permitting process to ensure that only safely-run waste facilities are licensed to operate, and in enforcing the laws to promote cleaner air and water in the area. He is a member of the Board of Directors of ECOLOGIA.

Clamshell Alliance: Thirteen Years of Anti-Nuclear Activism at Seabrook, New Hampshire, U.S.A.

by Paul Gunter

In August of 1976, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission , an agency of the Office of the President, issued a construction license for the Seabrook, New Hampshire, Nuclear Power Plant. Immediately 200 New England residents rallied at the edge of the future power plant site, on the seacoast saltmarsh. They organized under the banner of the Clamshell Alliance , to protest the plan to construct two 1150 megawatt nuclear reactors in the small town. Eighteen members of the Clamshell Alliance walked out onto the construction site to nonviolently obstruct construction. They were arrested for "criminal trespass" and sentenced to time in jail. A week later, 188 other New England citizens returned to the Seabrook site; they too were arrested.

By the early spring of April 1977, two thousand "Clams", as they came to be known, had returned to the site to non-violently reclaim the land and declare the ocean front "nuclear free". One thousand, four hundred fourteen Clams were arrested without violence, after two days at an on-site encampment. The antinuclear protestors were held in five National Guard Armories in New Hampshire for up to two weeks. The antinuclear movement intensified in those armories, as detention gave time for educational seminars on the dangers of nuclear power, and the need to replace it with safe and affordable renewable energy.

Now, after thirteen years, over 4,000 citizens have committed nonviolent civil disobedience at Seabrook in the effort to stop nuclear power. At the most recent demonstration, June 4, 1989, two state legislators, one from Massachusetts and one from New Hampshire, were among the 627 protestors arrested as they climbed onto Seabrook property to show their opposition and frustration.

The construction of the Seabrook facility is now complete (ten years overdue, with a cost approaching $7 billion.). The astronomical debt has led to the bankruptcy of Seabrook's major utility owner, Public Service of New Hampshire. This was the fourth largest bankruptcy in United States corporate history. But the nuclear industry and the United States federal government remain committed to licensing and operating Seabrook Station.

As part of the federal licensing process, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for many years had required individual state government approval of a nuclear plants' emergency evacuation plans. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident, public worries about nuclear plant safety mounted. As a result, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts withdrew his state's approval of the Seabrook Emergency Response Plan. He cited his grave doubts about the feasibility of effective state evacuation and sheltering capacities in the event of a nuclear accident. Then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reversed its earlier ruling that had required State and Local approval of emergency response plans. In an effort to keep the Seabrook licensing process alive, the Federal Government decided unilaterally to over- rule the concerns of the State of Massachusetts. Consequently, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now recognizes a bankrupt electric utility company (Public Service of New Hampshire) as the "competent agent" to conduct "an orderly and prompt evaculation" of the New Hampshire and Massachusetts seacoast.

The licensing of Seabrook Station is a live or die decision for the United States' nuclear industry. With the cancellation of plans for hundreds of United States nuclear power plants over the past decade, Seabrook is the last of an industrial generation. The nuclear industry now hopes to win back public trust and confidence with smaller, standardized designs for "inherently safe reactors". Seabrook can become either a milestone or a tombstone for that industry plan.

The Clamshell Alliance remains committed in its opposition to nuclear power through public education and nonviolent public action. It believes that the only relevant protection from a nuclear accident is prevention, and that the only radioactive waste that can be truly disposed of safely is the waste not generated.

Today, much attention in the West is focused on the pro- democracy movements in the Soviet Union. Within the Soviet Union, public opposition has resulted in the official abandonment of several nuclear reactors and an official re-examination of the continued use of nuclear power in that country. With great enthusiasm, the Clamshell Alliance seeks to make contact with Soviet citizens who have focused their efforts to bring a halt to the environmental devastation caused by the nuclear energy industry.

Clamshell activists would like to host a delegation of Soviet counterparts. Particular benefit could be gained by focusing US Congressional and public attention on the glasnost successes of Soviet citizen opposition to a resurgence of nuclear power. This situation can be contrasted with United States nuclear policy, which is becoming increasingly more repressive in confronting local, state and citizen concerns.

Clamshell activists are very interested in hosting a delegation of Soviet counterparts at select U.S.A. nuclear sites for discussions of the nuclear problems we all now face. The Clamshell Alliance proposes a series of joint US/USSR meetings of citizens opposed to nuclear power, with the goals of establishing citizen activist exchanges, visits to sites in both countries, organizing media events to gain publicity and support for anti- nuclear activities in both countries, and lobbying legislators and public officials with cross-cultural information.

Interested individuals and groups, from the United States and from the Soviet Union, interested in establishing contact and beginning communication on these interests with the goals of having cross-national conferences and site visits, should contact:

Clamshell Alliance
PO Box 734
Concord, New Hampshire 03301 U.S.A.
Telephone 603-224-4163

Paul Gunter is a co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance. A resident of Warner, New Hampshire, he has been arrested at Seabrook for nonviolent civil disobedience on several occasions.

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