Toxins are not constrained by fences, boundary lines, or ownership deeds. Toxins don’t care whether you actually live here or are simply passing through.
By Julia Shiota
There is an old bridge that spans a narrow point of Long Meadow Lake in Bloomington, Minnesota. Constructed in 1890, it once carried automobile traffic, until 1993. Now, it is a historical site, a bridge only for foot traffic that offers expansive views of the lake and the surrounding marshland. From the bridge you can see the pale dots of herons nestled among the reeds, and if you are lucky, you will see larger white shapes gliding across the still water – a pair of trumpeter swans.
Facing south on the bridge, and you can see the new highway busy with the automobile traffic that used to be on the the structure which you are now standing on. I remember standing on that pedestrian bridge as a child, my back to the highway, trying to focus on the water and the birds before me, trying to ignore the sound of all those car engines. If you looked out over the length of Long Meadow Lake with your back to the busy highway, you would have once seen large cloud-topped smokestacks of the Xcel Energy Power Station. When I was a child, I had no understanding of what those smokestacks were for, of what the vaporous clouds coming out of them were; I had no understanding of the relationship between energy and ecology. All I can remember is pointing out these smokestacks to my mother and saying,
“They’re too close.”
Katheryn Savage’s Groundglass (published by CoffeeHouse Press) is an exploration of the ways humans get too close to things that cause us harm. The book is a collection of micro essays that tell the story of how a polluted environment makes its way into human bodies and embeds itself into human life. Savage focuses, in large part, on her father’s illness, a rare form of cancer that has been known to have an environmental component, with slightly higher instances occurring in places where industrial waste and pollution are produced. “Was what made it unusual that we had long lived on the fence lines of industry?” Savage asks, “Was it the outside toxins within his body? It would be impossible to know, the surgeon said. What was and was not possible tethered us to the questions his body posed.” So much about her father’s illness, and many of the illnesses that spring up around industrial sites, is understood to be circumstantial. The surgeon is unable to directly say A (exposure industrial waste and pollution) caused B (cancer). But, as Savage explores, the linkages between the two are impossible to ignore.
Savage’s explorations bring her to sites of industrial pollution, such as the Shoreham Train Yards and the Humboldt Industrial Area, both located near her childhood home in Minneapolis. Savage also visits other brownfields and Superfund sites in Minnesota. The term Superfund refers to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), established by Congress in 1980 to fund remediation efforts of industrial sites, usually linked to mining, landfills, and processing plants. Through her exploration, Savage identifies something that is often obscured when it comes to Superfund sites in the public imagination: precisely where they are located. Savage provides a strong grounding for those who are unfamiliar with such places, orienting readers to exactly where these sites are, what other spaces they press up against, and who is harmed the most by proximity to these industrial sites. Savage writes that:
People who live along this stretch of the river in North Minneapolis suffer from the highest rate of asthma-related hospitalizations and the highest concentration of lead poisoning cases in the state. North Minneapolis remains one of the hearts of the Black community in Minnesota. It was a place where people experienced poverty and oppression in Minnesota. This stretch of river is a layered ecology, where 140 years of industrial use, expansion, and place, animal, and human life coexist.
One of the most arresting elements of Groundglass are the aerial photographs throughout. Early in the book one encounters an aerial shot of the Shoreham Train Yards, a large industrial site located in Minneapolis. The photo is in greyscale, only taking up about a third of the otherwise blank page. In it the industrial site is a stark near-white, its shape like an axe head that has swung down from the top left corner of the photo, the tip of its blade coming close to the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. I examine the tiny houses lined neatly up into streets and blocks and I feel a sense of unease at how close they are to that axe’s sharp blade.
But what does proximity truly mean when we speak of industrial pollution? Toxins are not constrained by fences, boundary lines, or ownership deeds. Toxins don’t care whether you actually live here or are simply passing through. They permeate whatever space they happen to find themselves in, sometimes utterly invisible and untraceable, sometimes leaving a lingering reminder of their presence in the air. On her way back to her childhood home, Savage describes her drive, writing that: “I drive past the industrial corridor north of the Lowry Avenue Bridge. A metallic sharpness rides the breeze. Here are the same industries that have dominated these riverbanks for more than a century. A tar-shingles factory, power station, concrete producer, two plywood and lumber suppliers, and an acrylic fabricator.”
Her words give me pause, the various notes of that industrial perfume striking a chord in my memory. From my own life, I can imagine the Wakota Bridge, further south along the Mississippi River, which I’ve crossed innumerable times driving on highway 494. I’ve crossed that bridge on my way to my old university, to jobs, to a previous apartment. Each time I went over that bridge I would instinctively hold my breath; if the wind blew the right way, you would be buffeted with that same metallic, acrid smell that Savage describes. As a passenger, I would often glance out my window as we drove, my eyes flickering to the hills and bluffs overlooking the part of Mississippi River that the Wakota Bridge spans. My eyes are always inevitably drawn to the houses lining the hills, nestled among the trees.
Here, I put down the book and quickly pull up a map. I begin at the bridge, expanding outward only a little until I see all of those sites lining the riverbanks – a petroleum plant, two steelworks manufacturers, a concrete producer, an asphalt plant. And beside them, so very close, are residential neighborhoods.
Much of the work of Groundglass is in looking, in bringing forth what has, often unbeknownst to those living in these spaces, seeped into soil, plants, animals, and people. It is about exploring the horror that comes from seeing the ways a polluted environment can so easily reach into our fleshy bodies. It is about realizing which people are thrown away for the sake of extractive capitalism, “a structural inequality that unjustly impacts, locally and globally, communities of color and Indigenous peoples and low-income people of all races and ethnicities.” Such communities are sometimes called “sacrifice zones,” as Savage writes. To that end, while Groundglass centers on the experiences of Savage herself and her father, she also draws in other voices, broadening her scope to showcase the extent to which pollution has impacted human lives. Keisha Brown, who lives near the Thirty-Fifth Ave North Birmingham Superfund Site in Alabama, describes growing up in place consistently exposed to industrial contaminants. She writes that “This is what I want to know: Why are we overlooked so much? Is it because we’re a Black community? All of us who are living here are Black. EPA people are still out here digging, still digging, still digging. Still putting dirt here and dirt there. Dirt is not helping us. The problem is in my body, not my yard.” For Brown, the act of remediation is ultimately hollow, particularly for those whose lives are dictated by the actions of an industry continually pumping destructive chemicals into the air, into the soil, into bodies: “They say this is a site of cleanup, but you can’t clean up what’s constantly coming down.”
The topic of remediation—removing industrial, commercial, and other contaminants from the environment—is a theme that Savage weaves throughout the voices of her interlocutors. Where to clean up, how to clean up, and how much (if any) compensation are companies even willing to give to those who have been exposed?
Savage’s friend, Gudrun Lock, also lives in the same Minneapolis neighborhood, a mere two blocks from Shoreham Yards and she also speaks of the possibility of revitalization—of possibly planting a forest along Shoreham as a way to remediate. Lock explains, “Realistically, the train yard isn’t going away. This pollution is here. It exists and continues in one form or another, whether they’ve cleaned it up to EPA standards or not. So, what do we do now?”
Taking the question of remediation, of healing, solely out of the hands of external organizations or entities lingers throughout Groundglass. Rebecca Jim, a Cherokee woman who lives near the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma, where the water has been running orange for over two decades, the effect of the heavy metals it continually carries. Jim describes the difficulty in getting the EPA to notice the creek or the harmful effects the contaminated water was having on the local children as far back as 1993. Eventually, though she says that “We were on the first list that the EPA established, the Superfund’s National Priorities List. We were listed number one in the nation, they filled some mine shafts and closed some wells, trying to lessen the amount of water that went back into the aquifer. They took some actions, but they weren’t very effective.”
When agencies fail those bearing the heaviest burden of industrial pollution, some take remediation into their own hands. Local and national activists keep media attention on the crisis of contamination and inequity surrounding Superfund sites, while thinking of alternate futures that don’t simply repeat the barely effective approaches Brown and Jim have seen in their neighborhoods. As Jim says,
I’m the Tar Creek keeper. I’m the water protector. It doesn’t matter which water it is, I’m going to work for it to run clean and be able to generate the kind of life that any species might need to exist here…This is fixable. This is something that communities around the world have been able to deal with, restoring damaged water like this. I’m saying, it’s not a pipe dream, it’s a real possibility, and I’m going to ride that pony and try to make it happen.
Savage’s work in Groundglass is about bringing similar stories from disparate individuals across multiple states, linking what can feel like individual instances of industrial failure to display the systemic issues harming so many. The work of change begins by looking. “Looking can be many things,” Savage writes, “and one of those is love.”
Further south from the Lowry and Wakota Bridges is Spring Lake Park Reserve, one of seventy-five state parks and recreation areas in the state. I visit fairly regularly, since it affords an expansive view of the river. Efforts at prairie restoration have created beautiful, clustered tufts of tall grass that glimmer when the wind blows. Signage throughout explain the ecology, animal life, and history of this patch of river. On the most recent visit, I stopped to read a marker about an archeological find in the area, now tucked safely away in the science museum downtown. The sign is located in dense forest, placed near a paved path that guides walkers to a pseudo-natural rocky outcropping overlooking the river. From my vantage point I peek through the tops of the oak and pine whose roots are far below my feet, embedded along the riverbank. Between the tops of trees, I see the river and the metallic, spiked canopy of a very different structure – the massive oil refinery. Near those steel spires I see a large, smooth mound, its dull brown bulk rising above the green of the trees around it – the landfill. We are miles away and yet I see both so clearly.
It should not be that we take notice of environmental harm only when someone points it out to us. It should be that the smokestacks, the smell of the Mississippi’s industrial corridor, the oil refineries and landfills are known entities, their sometimes-invisible impact made visible by looking, amplified through listening. But within questions of environmental justice are questions of race and inequality, the historic harms committed for extractive purposes long before the power plants and landfills. To look at the land is to look at the people. Savage muses that she is:
… as polluted as the sites. Could there be something humbling and revolutionary in understanding myself as a site of contamination? Inheritor of my ancestors’ trash and misdeeds? Could restorative action and real redress grow out of this painful recognition?
Groundglass overs no prescriptive answer, instead nudging readers to consider their own bodies and their own polluted landscapes, whether in Minneapolis, Alabama, or elsewhere. To imagine possibilities for remediation, to consider how to form communities around care for land and care for people. The work begins with looking, but it cannot end there.
Julia Shiota is a writer and editor from Minnesota. Her fiction and nonfiction work have appeared in Catapult, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Poets & Writers and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing or reading, she’s most often knitting or listening to Prince.