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Of Teflon and A-bombs, Chicago’s buried river and other great reads

Three tales of things buried beneath the earth.

The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project
Refining fissionable ore for the world’s first atomic weapons required an awkward process of turning it into a gas — uranium hexafluoride — using primitive, ad hoc contraptions with a high risk of exploding.
United States Department of Energy

If you follow issues of environmental toxins and human health, yet another account of Teflon’s journey from laboratory miracle to drinking-water adulterant may sound like a trudge over familiar ground.

But I can almost guarantee that Rebecca Altman’s elegant and complex essay for Aeon — “How 20th-century synthetics altered the very fabric of us all” — will give you fresh insight and a provocative perspective on this story with deep Minnesota roots.

Scotchgard, Teflon and other perfluorinated compounds of the PFAS group are her main examples of industrial pollution as ubiquitous “body burden.” But she begins the narrative a bit earlier, in 1938, with the placement of a Westinghouse Electric Corp. time capsule on the grounds of the New York World’s Fair.

Artifacts-to-be are listed — light bulb, telephone, nylon, safety pin (!) — but are not quite so interesting, 80 years on, as the sealant that accompanied the capsule into burial: 500-plus pounds of a heated “proprietary blend of pitch, mineral oil and a chemical compound called chlorinated diphenyl, known today as polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs).”

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Initially Westinghouse labeled its container a “time bomb,” which turned out to have been rather apt:

Today, PCBs are a notorious class of global pollutants and carcinogens capable of interfering with human fertility, development, cognition and immunity. Though human-made, biology recognises and can even interact with them. PCBs are everywhere, and by design, they endure. Banned by international treaty, they nonetheless live on in relic electrical equipment such as light ballasts and transformers, in riverbeds, and even in creatures of the extreme deep. Scientists now call most PCBs legacy contaminants — enduring poisons from the past.

The next stop on Altman’s tour is the Manhattan Project and its triumph, an actual bomb with the brand-new capability to keep killing people long after its detonation.

Refining fissionable ore for the world’s first atomic weapons required an awkward process of turning it into a gas — uranium hexafluoride — using primitive, ad hoc contraptions with a high risk of exploding. Also required: one of the new fluorocarbon compounds developed by the chemist Joseph H. Simons for his employer, then known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

Chemists soon descended on Columbia [University] to work on “Joe’s stuff.” Fumes wafted from the university’s windows, corroding the metalwork and shrivelling its iconic climbing ivy. Meanwhile, Simons would split his time between Oak Ridge — the secret Atomic City that the Manhattan Project built in eastern Tennessee — where he worked on fluorinated war gases, and Pennsylvania, where he endeavoured to develop a safer method for producing fluorocarbons.

He worked in parallel with the Manhattan Project, and at a fever pitch, as if the future of humanity hung in the balance. His kids rarely saw him. His health would soon plummet. What he achieved didn’t look like much, just a covered cauldron — a clunky, awkward metal vat “about as unimpressive as a washtub,” as Popular Mechanics put it. But it could brew up complex batches of fluorocarbons to help the cause.

Altman draws clear parallels between two toxic legacies — one radioactive and widely recognized, the other less obvious but far more pervasive (in Rachel Carson’s words, “a new kind of fallout”):

PFOA exposures have been associated with a number of adverse health outcomes including ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and cancers of the testes and kidney. The International Agency for Research on Cancer now names PFOA as a Level 2B carcinogen. The US National Toxicology Program recognises PFOS and PFOA as toxic to the immune system. Animal studies provide further indication that PFASs are biologically active molecules. Even at trace levels, they engage the endocrine system, and can partake in the physiological processes that fall under its dominion….

In addition to West Virginia, Ohio and Minnesota, there are known hotspots in New York, Alabama, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Michigan; in Antwerp in Belgium; in Osaka in Japan; in Arnsberg in Germany; in Veneto in Italy; as well as in regions of China, New Zealand and Australia, with more uncovered each year. From samples collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most Americans, about 98 per cent of the population, archive PFOS in their blood, and 99.7 per cent carry PFOA — both trends likely to bear out worldwide.

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Simons’ personal story is another important narrative thread here, and Altman sees the toxic burden of PFAS compounds (and PCBs) as potentially fulfilling a futuristic and dystopian novel that the chemist wrote toward the end of his life, in which nuclear waste and industrial pollution have made humans extinct and Earth uninhabitable. Moreover, she observes, the taint has made us kin to Westinghouse’s PCB-sealed archive, as “walking, talking time capsules of 20th-century technologies.”


Another fascinating endeavor of human hubris, gargantuan in a different way, is rendered by Henry Grabar for Slate in “Chicago Dug the World’s Biggest Flood-Stopping Tunnel. What if the City Got It Wrong?

Somehow I had managed to overlook Chicago’s second massive effort to monkey with the watery advantages of its location on Lake Michigan. In addition to making the Chicago River run backwards in the 1890s, so as to flush its sewage into the Mississippi River basin instead of municipal beaches, the city has been building for the last 53 years a new, underground river to keep floodwater from filling its basements (also, from fouling the lake and the views from Gold Coast apartment towers).

But the Deep Tunnel picks up sewage, too:

On rainy days, this subterranean passage, a conduit that can hold more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater, welcomes a roaring torrent of shit, piss, and oily runoff from the downtown streets. This megasewer, a filthy hidden portrait to the Chicago River’s Dorian Gray, is dynamic enough to create its own wave action if not properly supervised. That’s what happened on Oct. 3, 1986, when a geyser blasted through a downtown street, lifting a 61-year-old woman’s Pontiac Bonneville into the air like a toy, nearly drowning the driver in dirty water.

Altogether, 109 miles of subway-size tunnel lie beneath Chicago and its suburbs, covering more miles than the L, culminating in three suburban reservoirs (not the kind you drink from). This is the Deep Tunnel, formally the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, and it may be the world’s most ambitious and expensive effort to manage urban flooding and water pollution. It is a project, in the visionary tradition of Chicago engineering, to bottle rainstorms.

So how is it working out? Depends on how you frame the question, and where you direct it. City officials claim that it protects 1.5 million structures from flooding, and has prevented damage estimated at $100 million to $200 million per year.

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Before the project, as little as a one-third of an inch of rain could overwhelm the city’s sewers, sending wastes into the river as well as basements, and this tended to be a problem on about one day out of three. As Kevin Fitzpatrick, an engineer on the Deep Tunnel for 15 years, tells Grabar:

To have today’s types of storms without this capacity, I don’t think we could function as a modern city. A modern city shouldn’t have people’s homes flooded with sewage. It shouldn’t have a dead river without fish in it.

But even when the project is finished — the pipeline is complete, the final receiving reservoirs will need another decade — urban flooding will continue, according to Fitzpatrick. So the city is also pushing smaller-scale remedies on the order of rain barrels and green roofs. And keeping a wary eye on the shifting precipitation patterns that accompany a changing climate:

In the Midwest, for example, the amount of rain falling in the heaviest storm events increased 37 percent between 1958 and 2012. Big two-day storms are 53 percent more frequent….

Chicago is vulnerable. Of the 15 largest metros in the United States, only Houston and Miami have higher rates of flood-insurance adoption. There were more than 181,000 flood-insurance claims in Chicago between 2007 and 2011 amounting to $773 million in damage, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago think tank.

The figures almost certainly underestimate the problem, because not all insurance companies release flood-claim data, and many homeowners don’t have policies that cover street flooding or sewer back-ups. A separate study by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources recorded $2.3 billion in damage between 2007 and 2014, with more than 85 percent of payouts occurring in the Chicago metro area.

Nevertheless, Grabar finds, the decidedly limited success of Chicago — a metropolis built on flat, swampy land, whose history “can be told as a series of escapes from wastewater, each more ingenious than the last” — is inspiring imitation in such cities as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, St. Louis, the District of Columbia, London and Guangzhou.


Some of that wastewater would no doubt be welcome in Arizona’s Mohave County, where changing land use is threatening a new era of crisis in a state that thought it had managed its way to sustainability decades ago.

Writing for E&E News, Jeremy P. Jacobs takes us to the countryside around Kingman, where Trump won 73 percent of the vote in 2016 and MAGA hats remain popular, for “It was ‘Land of the Free.’ Then the water disappeared.” That’s where state Rep. Regina Cobb, a dentist and conservative Republican, tells a forum:

We wanted to be able to put wells where we wanted to. We didn’t want monitoring. We didn’t want metering. We didn’t want government coming in and telling us what to do. Until we saw the number of wells that were being put into the ground.

Kingman is a city of 30,000 people and the seat of Mohave County, “one of the largest in the country, bigger than the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware and Rhode Island combined.” Groundwater supplies all of its needs, and one recent forecast suggests it might run out in 55 years.

Just seven years ago, Mohave had no significant water problems. Population growth was slow and steady; large-scale farming and development were essentially absent.

That changed in a big way when a Las Vegas real estate developer, East Coast investors and California nut farmers were lured to the area by its nonexistent groundwater regulations. They snatched up thousands of acres and poked industrial wells more than 1,000 feet into the ground. Since 2011, then drove at least 163 wells, according to county officials.

Withdrawals for agriculture have quadrupled but recharge rates are unchanged, resulting in groundwater “mining.” The pace toward potential disaster is in the hands of the new farmers, many of whom have not yet begun to operate at full scale, but could do so at will and without notice. And Mohave isn’t the only part of Arizona in this predicament.

In neighboring La Paz County, a Saudi Arabian dairy bought an existing, nearly 10,000-acre farm and planted hay for export in 2014. In Cochise County, east of Tucson, private wells are pumping up sand. It’s an unexpected turn for a state that has the nation’s most robust groundwater management law.

Then there’s climate change and a pattern of deepening drought, which are threatening the state’s principal surface-water resource, the Colorado River.

If a shortage is declared on the river for the first time — a 50-50 proposition next year, according to forecasters — Arizona will be the first state to see its portion of the river’s water dialed back significantly in 2020. That has led to another fear in Mohave County and other rural areas of the state: Water managers in the booming metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson will come for their groundwater.

The 1980 state law that mandated sustainable management of the state’s main aquifers includes provisions for monitoring groundwater levels and limiting drawdowns for irrigation. It created a two-tier regulatory system; depending the category, a landowner might be required to return as much water as had been withdrawn, or prohibited from expanding irrigated acreage, or made to prove that new developments had access to a water supply that would last 100 years. Farmers, a state official told Jacobs, were forced to trade their right to add new irrigated land for the right to continue pumping groundwater.

About 80 percent of Arizona’s population is within the management areas covered by the law. But Mohave County, with few people and little farming back in 1980, was left out of the plan and its protections. The law was written to allow expansion of the management zones by order of the governor, but it has never happened.

Meanwhile, Kingman’s aquifer in the Hualapai Basin is rapidly enlarging its deficit:

According to USGS, about 15,500 acre-feet of water per year historically was removed from the basin,  while only about 9,900 acre-feet is recharged by snow and rain runoff, creating a net loss of about 5,600 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or as much as a Los Angeles family uses in a year.)  Kingman alone generally pulls about 8,000 to 8,600 acre-feet per year.

In 2014, agricultural irrigators were also pumping 8,000 acre-feet per year, about the same as the city; two years later, that had quadrupled to 32,000. Since then two developers have said their projects will require 20,000 and 70,000 acre-feet, respectively, each year. As Nick Hont, a civil engineer, explained to Grabar, the math involved in forecasting the impact of those scenarios isn’t so difficult:

If users take 8,000 acre-feet per year, you have water for 400 years. If users pump 80,000 acre-feet, you have water for 40. It’s that simple.