America, the Beautiful? Environmental Problems in the U.S.A.

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The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in the world, with the largest economy and biggest research and development establishments. It put men on the moon and sent space probes beyond the bounds of our solar system. Despite this, it has an unenviable environmental record.

Beyond the current American record holder of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the United States can boast of a number of environmental disasters, almost all of which are related to either the energy industry or the chemical industry.

Off-shore oil drilling and transportation are responsible for some of the biggest environmental problems in the United States, or even the world. While events like the Exxon Valdez spill, or the Gulf Coast spill are thankfully rare, the amount of damage they cause can be monumental. However, there are many smaller accidents and leaks that occur every day that are rarely reported.

The chemical industry is also responsible for some serious environmental problems. Of course, the Love Canal debacle, which became the site of the first Superfund cleanup, is notable here. Love Canal was a neighbourhood in Niagara Falls, New York that was used as a chemical waste dump by Hooker chemical in the 1950s. 21,000 tons of waste were disposed of in drums on the site, including benzene and dioxins. By the 1970s, the leaking toxic waste was causing birth defects in local neighbourhoods, the residents of which had to eventually be relocated by the federal government. Hooker Chemical, now owned by Occidental Petroleum, eventually had to pay $129 million in restitution.

Other notable toxic sites include Anniston, Alabama, where chemical giant Monsanto dumped millions of kilograms of toxic materials, which were a by-product of the production of PCBs, into Anniston Creek. They also disposed of millions of kilograms of PCBs by dumping them into open disposal pits. Despite being fined nearly $700 million, Monsanto never issued an apology nor admitted responsibility.

Libby, Montana and Picher, Oklahoma are towns that have been devastated or destroyed by the mining of lead and asbestos, which are both incredibly toxic. Libby was cleaned of its asbestos contamination, though the corporation involved, W. R. Grace, was driven into bankruptcy by the over 120,000 asbestos-related lawsuits against it. Picher was eventually abandoned due to the extremely high concentrations of lead in the ground.

Of course, the king of pollution in the United States is coal. In addition to the tons of aerosols, particulates, and acid rain each power plant produces, there is also the ash to contend with. This ash is extremely toxic, with each power plant producing several tons of arsenic, lead, barium, and other heavy metals each year. This ash is usually stored on site in sludge ponds at the power plant, each of which can hold millions of gallons of water mixed with the toxic ash. On some occasions, these ponds have overflowed, often due to dam failure, and inundated the surrounding countryside with hazardous material. In 2000, this happened in West Virginia, and in 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Authority Fossil Fuel plant in Kingston, Tennessee.

These are just the disasters. Everyday decisions, like building cities in the desert, or building new suburbs, lead to long-term environmental damage, sucking all the water out of entire watersheds, massive deforestation and habitat loss, mountains of garbage swallowing the waste of millions of people, and countless tons of herbicides and pesticides employed to over-feed a nation.

The United States has its share of breathtakingly beautiful areas as well, of that there can be no doubt. The Florida Everglades, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, and California’s redwood forests are just some of the wonderful national areas in the country. The stain of the toxic waste dumps can overshadow the beauty, though.

America has the potential to be a shining example of environmental responsibility, and has the resources to lead the way towards a renewable, and sustainable, future. Unfortunately, based on its past record, it seems to be unwilling to take up the mantle of environmental leadership.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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