The Long Haul

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to keep a journal of environmental concerns.

Wind whipped off the river as I pushed my bike, inch by inch, down the 10th Street Bridge. The sky was iron, the water rusted copper. The slopes of Mt. Washington looked dead and scraggly, cleanly bisected by the Incline track that massaged itself with cars. A man passed me, nodding from within layers of hood and coat. Otherwise, the only sound was the maddening rush of traffic.

In the distance, I saw a coal barge closing in. Having watched barges for years, this vessel was only exceptional in size — eight container units, each a hundred feet long, linked together and pushed along by a muscular tugboat (The Janet Marie was printed in large Helvetica letters on the back). I set my kick-stand, armed my camera and waited for the barge to emerge beneath the bridge. When the craft rumbled into full view, I snapped.

Even today, U.S. Steel still sends barges up and down the Monongahela. This is a year-round process, even in the dead of winter. The mounds of coal are dusted with snow, but the transport continues.

When I interviewed the Pennsylvania Environmental Council last year, I was surprised to hear that coal doesn’t have much impact on the Three Rivers. Sure, there’s acid rain, and yes, there’s probably some spillage, but these are negligible compared to the real problem: overflowing sewage tanks. The tonnage of raw sewage that spills into the Three Rivers can be measured in billions — about 22 billion every year. This is particularly disastrous in springtime, when rain-fall and flooding are unpredictable.

And then there’s the completely unknown effect of pharmaceuticals. What happens when you dump spare Zoloft, Xanax, Aspirin and Beta-Blockers down the drain? And not just the odd pill, but the digested chemicals that come out of us. Research in this area barely exists. Fish may have returned to the Three Rivers; swimmers may race for an annual triathlon. But the rivers are still as vulnerable as ever.
The guy I talked with at PEC offered a pretty simple solution: building sod roofs over the sewage containment units. Such roofs are pretty much the most efficient, intelligent, eco-friendly designs in existence, and they’re applicable to pretty much any kind of architecture. But topsoil for sewage containers seemed particularly brilliant: What could be cheaper than a layer of top-soil? What could make more sense that combining (a) billions of tons of free fertilizer with (b) plants. Or crops for the matter.
           I’ve been told that City Council has never taken the concept seriously, but I don’t know the details. It seems insane to delay such a perfect idea — especially when the benefits are immediate and astronomical. If the Army Corps of Engineers can drain an entire lake to relieve a little silt, surely we can lay some damn soil.
           When I reached the end of the bridge, I had lunch with friends in Station Square. The block is a former railroad station, which has been repurposed as a shopping and entertainment complex. I often wonder how that brainstorm came to fruition. “I’ve got this crazy idea,” somebody said. “But it might just work.”

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