I lived in a suburban house with radioactive thorium in the front yard

The first home my parents purchased was on the southwest side of West Chicago, a small suburb in the western part of DuPage County. While the community was the known for the railroad, industry, and a sizable population of Mexican residents, what we did not know was in the ground in our front yard also came to define the suburb.

The 1954 ranch house on a quiet street with no sidewalks was relatively unassuming: the home was just over 1,200 square feet, had a one car garage, three bedrooms, and a decent-sized yard. The self-contained subdivision was near a grocery store and some strip malls and was a ten minute car ride from the suburb’s downtown.

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When my parents went to sell the home in 1988, a discovery was made: the front yard had radioactive material from a local plant. A Chicago company produced lanterns and opened a facility in West Chicago in 1932. The radioactive waste material from the plant, thorium, was then offered to the community as fill. The city and residents took the fill and used it all over the suburb. The plant was later acquired by Kerr-McGee and when the radioactive thorium was discovered throughout the community (after years of struggle), a good portion of the community became the Kerr-McGee Superfund site and the last of the contaminated soil was removed in 2015.

This front yard revelation had implications for selling the home: no one would want it. Supposedly, the radioactivity in the front yard was enough to equal that of an x-ray if someone sat between the two trees in the front for 24 hours. Eventually, Kerr-McGee purchased the home and years later, many yards on that street were torn up to remove the radioactive material.

It is hard to know if the radioactivity had any effects on those of us who lived in the house. Nothing obvious has emerged yet. We may have emerged unscathed. It was not Love Canal. Perhaps this could be considered an odd footnote in a suburban upbringing. Yet, at the same time, few suburbanites would expect to find they had purchased radioactive land. Furthermore, few Americans have a personal connection to a decades-long and costly fight to clean up and remove (this cost an estimated $1.2 billion alone) radioactive thorium.

Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature

A consistent appeal of suburbia for many Americans is to be closer to nature and green space. While suburbanites appreciate their proximity to urban amenities without having to actually live in the big city, they also often appreciate more open space and closeness to nature. American suburbanites may be out of touch with nature and children may be exposed to less nature these days but the suburbs are viewed as offering access to nature just outside the single-family home.

As cities grew in the nineteenth century, they became dirty places. While this is an ongoing issue in many large cities still (think smog in Paris or air quality in Beijing), these growing cities had particular problems including how to construct sewers (Chicago’s efforts in battling excrement helped it grow), dealing with waste from all the horses, and soot (see pictures of Pittsburgh turned dark in the middle of the day). The suburbs offered some distance from the grime of the city and more proximity to pristine nature.

Exactly what kind of nature suburbanites experience is up for debate. As one critic of suburbia suggests, the suburbs often involve “nature band-aids.” Suburbanites may be interested in farms or “agrihoods” but the average suburban dweller has a small plot of land around their home. I am reminded of one situation I discovered in my research on suburban development where residents of a newer subdivision complained vociferously when the adjacent cornfield turned into a new development. This common process of suburban development – more agricultural or rural land or open space is turned into sprawl – can frustrate many residents.

One consistent experience involves using and caring for the lawns that surround many single-family homes. The green lawn is an important symbol of the owner’s social class as well as a space for outside recreation. Caring for the lawn is vitally important. Neighborhoods and communities exert pressure. Residents make sure their lawns are green in a variety of conditions ranging from watering during droughts, painting their lawns, and searching out the best seeds. They often have plenty of trees, prized by suburbanites for their foliage, functioning as key symbols of nature, and ability to define edges of properties and hide views of others.

Beyond lawns, suburbanites are often interested in parks, forest preserves, and green spaces. Theoretically, these uses limit the possibility that the green space can be turned into other uses. Even somewhat protected green space like a golf course can provoke concerns if it is turned into something else. Additionally, these spaces enhance property values of single-family homes, allow space for children to play, and can become sites of local social activity. Some of these places can offer more authentic nature (less controlled by humans) though many of these sites are carefully kept. Furthermore, even in these preserved spaces, it is difficult to truly escape the suburban noise and evidence of civilization.

Sometimes, nature can be perceived as the enemy of suburbanization. A great example is dealing with water. Flooding is a persistent issue. More housing alongside roadways and parking lots do not allow water to soak into the ground. Think the Houston area after a hurricane. In spaces with less human activity, flooding and waterways changing course do not have the devastating or annoying effects that they can in suburbia. Turning land into suburbia can have the effect of bulldozing over natural ways of dealing with water and instead trying to channel it or eliminate it around homes and other uses. This is not always successful and much money can be spent on the issue. For example, the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region is a massive civil engineering project born out of urban and suburban development.

Of course, the opposite can be true as well: suburbanization can be the enemy of nature. Rachel Carson’s influential work emerged by suburban settings. At the same time, nature itself can also adapt to suburbanization. The wildland-urban interface can move as creatures like coyotes, deer, baboons, and birds adapt to human activity.

While critics of suburbs may not understand why suburbanites cannot see the ugliness of sprawl, many Americans believe the suburbs offer a little more natural space in which to move and breathe.

How a 9-year-old estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day

Statistics are often vital to public campaigns to fight social problems. The problem of plastic straws is no exception. Here is how 9-year-old Milo Cress developed the oft-cited statistic:

But as Cress began to dig into research on plastics and the environment, he noticed there wasn’t much data: “I couldn’t find anything on our use of straws in the United States,” he said.

So he called straw manufacturers himself, asking what they estimated to be the straw market in the United States per day. Some gave him a yearly estimate, which he divided by 365.

“Others gave an estimate of around 500 million straws,” Cress said. “That was the number that I stuck to, because it seemed to be around the middle of what they were saying.”…

“Why I use this statistic is because it illustrates that we use too many straws,” he said. “I think if it were another number, it still illustrates the fact that there is room for reduction. That’s really my message.”

Sociologist Joel Best, who has written about the social construction of statistics, could have a field day with this.

With all of the debate regarding this figure, couldn’t someone with expertise in this field offer a number that has some more rigor? Even if the number changes a bit, say it goes down to 200 million straws day, it would not matter much as either figure is huge. And this is the whole point (and this is often the case for advocates against a particular social problem): the big number is intended to shock and spur action.

Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.

Thorium contaminated soil out of West Chicago; still groundwater

Earlier this week, the last thorium contaminated soil was shipped out of West Chicago:

After more than 30 years and $1.2 billion worth of cleanup work, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago have been shipped out of town.

Mayor Ruben Pineda said the occasion is cause for celebration. On Tuesday, he gathered with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, Weston Solutions, DuPage County and other organizations that have helped with removing thousands of pounds of thorium waste produced by the factory. They watched the rail cars head to Utah, where the materials will be buried in the desert.

However, this is not the end of the thorium saga:

Although the soil is gone, city officials said they are waiting for the federal government to provide about $32 million to resolve issues with the contaminated groundwater at the site.

“We still have a lot of work to do out there,” Pineda said. “If we were to get (the $32 million), we could finish the project relatively quickly and (the factory site) would turn into a beautiful park.”

Both parts of this process – removing the soil and finding the funds to completely finish the job (see earlier posts on the long search for funds) – have been lengthy.

With an end in sight, I wonder how long it will take for the idea that thorium is part of West Chicago’s character to dissipate. This has been an ongoing issue for over four decades and this industrial, working-class suburb has often attracted certain attention because of the radioactive material. But, once the thorium is gone for good, those who lived in the community will move away or pass on and newer generations have little or no understanding or experience with this part of the community’s past. Will the community want to remember how it came together to get the thorium out or would it be better to just forget the whole episode and its negative connotations?

What if car-free central Paris catches on?

It is a day for pedestrians in Paris:

“Parisians will be able to take back their daily living space and experience the city in a different way,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who would have liked to make the entire city off-limits to vehicles on Sunday.The closure is unprecedented for the French capital and opens the entire city center to pedestrians only for one day, expanding on popular areas already off-limits to Sunday traffic like the fashionable Marais, the cobblestoned Montmartre and the hip neighborhood along Canal Saint-Martin.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic that normally clogs the city’s boulevards will be replaced by street parties, yoga classes, markets with fresh produce and — this being Paris — food tastings with top chefs…

Paris’ motor-free day is by no means a world’s first. Brussels, the traffic congestion capital of Europe, launched its first car-free Sunday 15 years ago, an example followed by Montreal, Jakarta and other cities.

The rest of the article emphasizes the pollution cars regularly bring to Paris and an upcoming climate change conference. These are important matters to address but there are also quality of life issues at well. Like many older cities, Paris has been retrofitted to accommodate cars and vehicles but what can be done is limited. Central Paris is a place for pedestrians, even after Haussmann’s changes, for both locals and tourists. The congestion tax in central London is an adaptation to a similar setting.

All together, I’m interested in what happens after this car-free day happens: do people find that they like this more than they thought? Why not regular car-free Sundays and then perhaps additional days as well? Yes, this could help bring down pollution levels but it could also make the central city a more pleasant place. Given the spread of such days in major cities throughout the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more such days in Paris.

Chicago Lucas museum to have to deal with garbage underneath

Chicago may have a beautiful waterfront but plans for the Lucas museum provide a reminder of how that land was acquired: garbage.

“Any design will account for existing environmental issues and be built accordingly,” an Emanuel spokesman said. “The mayor has been clear. No public dollars will be spent on construction of the Lucas museum.”With Emanuel’s backing, Lucas is proposing a five-acre museum nestled on 17 acres of Chicago parkland just south of Soldier Field. But what’s buried below the surface of the site is nasty stuff. An analysis for the renovation of Soldier Field and the land around it more than a decade ago found potentially cancer-causing chemicals in the soil near the stadium, according to a site inspection report filed with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency…

The contamination discovered around Soldier Field is believed to be the byproduct of burning wood, coal and other materials. Embankments, parking lots and other paved surfaces around the stadium serve as barriers eliminating human exposure to the buried pollutants. Plans call for some of that area to be dug up as Lucas proposes moving 3,000 parking spaces underground. The project’s proximity to Lake Michigan also is a factor for environmental planning.

I remember seeing a small exhibit of some of this garbage at the Field Museum about 10 years ago. On a small plot just outside their building they had found a wide range of items including utensils and tea cups and saucers from hotels.

Since there are environmental concerns at this particular site, I wonder how close residents and visitors are to these dangerous materials at other points along the lakefront. Just how deep would one have to dig to find the garbage? How much work does it take to contain the problems when constructing new buildings?