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A warning sign at the entrance to Times Beach, 1985

Photo Credit/Bill Pierce/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

On a warm summer day, demonstrators assembled to protest an ecological catastrophe that had been created by the callous actions of their own local government. They chanted slogans and held signs, demanding justice and aid for their contaminated neighbourhood and poisoned children. Among the protesters was a young boy who wore a placard reading: “We’ve got better things to do than sit around and be contaminated!!” The year was 1978, and the place was Love Canal, less than two hours from Toronto.


This should sound eerily familiar to the Flint Water Crisis, which has been in the news for months. As a part of austerity measures, Flint emergency manager Jerry Ambrose switched the water supply of the city of Flint to the lead and chlorine-contaminated Flint River. Ambrose continually ignored warning signs for over a year, including the discovery that the water corroded metal on cars at the local GM plant, a decision that has left 10 dead and 6,000 to 12,000 children permanently poisoned. Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed Ambrose and failed to respond to the crisis while simultaneously lying about it to the public, faces a recall election and has admitted that Flint is his “[Hurricane] Katrina.”


Yet lost in the discourse over the crisis is a simple, disturbing fact: this crisis is in no way “unprecedented,” as many have claimed. Major ecological disasters are shockingly common in poor communities when austerity and other cost-cutting measures are combined with little or no environmental oversight, and Flint is just the latest example.


Love Canal was a working class neighbourhood of Niagara Falls, New York. After a heavy rainstorm in 1962, residents began to discover pools of noxious liquids in their yards and basements. Accompanying these came a massive spike in cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages. It was not until 1978 that local journalists uncovered the truth: Love Canal sat atop 22,000 tons of toxic waste.


The crisis in Love Canal was created in 1953, when the Niagara Falls City School District aggressively sought to purchase the Love Canal dump from Hooker Chemical in order to build new schools on cheap land. Despite protests from Hooker and a demonstration of the toxicity of the land, the NFCSD pushed ahead with the sale. Not only did the NFCSD build two schools on the site, they damaged the dump’s containment cap during construction, allowing the waste to leach out. Like Flint, the residents of Love Canal were carelessly poisoned so that the city could save money.


In 1972, the town of Times Beach, Missouri privatized its road maintenance to save money and hired contractor Russell Martin Bliss to oil the town’s dirt roads, despite the fact that for a year, farms that Bliss had sprayed became toxic for humans and animals alike. Over the next four years, Bliss sprayed 23 miles of dirt roads in Times Beach with a mixture of motor oil and chemical waste containing dioxin. It was not until 1982, and a leaked EPA memo, that residents learned of the contamination. After the evacuation of the town that December due to flooding, the CDC advised that the evacuation be made permanent.


The list goes on and on: the Centralia mine fire, the DC Water Crisis, the Gold King Mine Spill, the Niagara Falls Storage Site, Cancer Alley….


These are warnings of what happens when austerity and budget balancing become more important than the health and wellbeing of citizens. When government is run with money as the primary concern, safety is relegated and the prospect of ecological disaster is created. When local and federal environmental protection agencies are crippled by politics and budget cuts of their own, a disaster is not only more probable, but its severity is compounded. Therefore, as municipalities, states, and provinces are pushed to balance their budgets and reduce overhead, the possibility of disasters like Flint and Mount Polley are not at all unprecedented, but instead almost certain.


Jack Grobe is an American historian. He holds a Bachelors from U of T, a Masters from the University of Chicago, and is starting a PhD in the fall. He works for books, records, and pot.

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