By Beth U.
I like margins. Edges of scholarship, abandoned lots, wildlife preserves carved from the industrial grid.
I often walk at Tinicum Refuge, a marshland adjacent to the Philadelphia Airport and the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland in Pennsylvania. It is only because of conservationists’ efforts that Interstate 95 runs alongside the marsh rather than through it. Along the other side sits the Sun Oil Company tank farm, a series of enormous canisters that store petrochemicals. The defunct Delaware County Sewer Treatment Plant and the capped Folcroft Landfill share its perimeter.
As people cast fishing lines to troll the catfish-depths, they can watch planes take off or listen to the rumble of the nearby recycling facility. It’s the only place for miles to gawk at herons or poke at snapping turtles.
The marshland is a refuge for people. It is also home to endangered and threatened southern leopard frogs and red-bellied turtles. A few years ago, I watched baby bald eagles grow big and take flight.
It is easy to forget what lurks around, behind, and underneath all the lush-lipped shrubbery. But like many places stolen from ever-rapacious industry, the refuge hides as much as it provides. I have slid my kayak through water the color of Irish Spring soap, marshland-deeps recognizable only by the tires cast there.
And then there are the “this is a superfund site” signs stuck in the ground between the water’s edge and the houses beyond. Yes, because people live alongside the refuge and thus alongside terrain so polluted it warrants hazard signs. Unsurprising, most of the people who live here are working-class people of color. This creek runs into the Delaware River and later, into the Atlantic Ocean.
To see where industries dump waste, where there are hidden and no-so-hidden generating plants and landfills is to see a visual map of institutional racism and socioeconomic discrimination.
I think, when I walk here: out of sight is out of mind. In a city bracketed and veined by industries both old and new, we take what nature we can get, even if it blooms atop a refuse heap.
But maybe it is more accurate to say: in sight is out of mind? Meaning that industrial threat is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. What we get used to, we fail to see.
Chemical waste and the industries used to produce electricity, plastics or natural gas are the backdrop of many lives, the health threat quotidian like the slow growth of cancer. I think about my friend Gloria who died of breast cancer last October. She was convinced the cancer came from a childhood playing in abandoned factories in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, once the textile-manufacturing center of the world.
Recently, seeking new margins, I drove to Supawna Meadows in New Jersey to see what secrets it held. I parked amongst the reeds beneath high-voltage power lines. As I stepped out of my truck, I heard the buzz-hum-crackle overhead. Enormous metal girders march like an apocalyptic army through the preserve. No big deal, I thought. But as soon as I moved from tree coverage into the open meadow, I saw it: the Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station. Where did that come from?
I forced myself not to run screaming back to my pick-up. I forced myself not drive like I was on fire until the nuclear stack disappeared from my rear-view mirror. I forced myself instead to walk to the bird blind in the middle of the meadow. In the hot, still air, with only birdsong for company, I wanted to yell and keep on yelling. To say that I was expecting an explosion with every tentative step is not an exaggeration.
When I was in grade school, during the unraveling of the Soviet Bloc, some well-intentioned but fucking idiot of a teacher decided to show my class a film about nuclear war. I remember a dad going to work, leaving the mom and kids at home. A bomb or many bombs explode. Dad is gone. Most of the world is gone. Slowly, the kids die. Not right away. Invisibly at first, internally, until there are people screaming and many bodies wrapped in white sheets.
A nuclear bomb is not a generating station, nor is this a treatise about the pros and cons of nuclear energy. All I am telling you is that I thought about this movie as I watched smoke plume from the telltale stack. I thought about when Chernobyl exploded into a million bits—a disaster that to this day takes lives. I thought about the impact of contaminated reindeer meat on indigenous Sami people. I thought about the mother of a friend who survived leukemia because she was driving across the Susquehanna River in 1979, when the Three Mile Island “partial” nuclear meltdown occurred. She remembers a flash of light and that is all.
I thought about the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Japan. A recent survey shows that nearly 70 percent of households that fled the disaster area have family members complaining of physical or mental problems. Yet, a recent article in Harper’s describes how some locals have returned or never really left the contaminated area. There is fear, but then there is also home. Home and territory and belonging to a place. A person’s choice to live within reach of a seeping and unstable nuclear generating plant is, perhaps, no different from living with industry when we don’t know what it might do to us.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are two emergency planning zones around nuclear power plants, the first a “plume exposure pathway zone” with a radius of 10 miles. Here, people will be immediately exposed to and inhale radioactive contamination.
The approximate number of people who live within 10 miles of Hope Creek and thus within the “plume exposure pathway”? 53,811, an increase of 53.3 percent in a decade.
The second zone is the “ingestion pathway zone” of about 50 miles, concerned with secondary ingestion of contaminated food and liquid.
The approximate number of people who live within 50 miles of Hope Creek and thus within the “ingestion pathway zone”? 5,523,010, including the entire population of Philadelphia, PA, Wilmington, DE and Camden, NJ.
I left Supawna Meadows and pretty quickly. I felt better once the stack was out of view, even though the threat was the same. I suppose I can abide landfills, but not nuclear power plants at my refuge. On my way home, I saw families picnicking and swing-sets and the Moose Lodge and the convenience store and fast-food workers waiting for the bus and miles and miles of newly planted corn and tomatoes and squash.
I saw our everyday in view of potential disaster, in spite of threat, like catfish dinner pulled from a polluted creek.