Love That Dirty Water

The Ol’ Toxic Swimmin’ Hole, Pike Copper Mine

A little good environmental news, courtesy of the Valley News by way of VTDigger: The long, expensive, difficult cleanup of the Elizabeth Mine Superfund site may be finished by the end of this year.

Huzzahs all around. Great news for our environment and for the town of Strafford, which has borne the brunt of the cleanup effort.

But the story also mentions two other Superfund sites in eastern Vermont: the Pike Hill Copper Mine in Corinth and the Ely Copper Mine in Vershire. Which made me wonder, how many Superfund sites does Vermont have, anyway?

The answer, according to the EPA’s website, is 14. (Not counting the Saint-Gobain site that’s wreaked havoc with Bennington-area water supplies. The actual site is in New York.)

Next question: How does our total compare with other states?

The answer: in absolute numbers, pretty good. On a per capita basis, not so much.

I ran the numbers for other New England states and threw in my home state of Michigan, a former industrial powerhouse that might be expected to have a lot of Superfund sites. Sad to say, Vermont’s the worst of the lot.

Vermont’s 14 Superfund sites equals roughly one per 45,000 residents.

New Hampshire: one per 62,000. Rhode Island: 82,000. Maine: 84,000. Massachusetts: 173,000. Connecticut: 198,000.

Michigan: One per 154,000.

Grain of salt time. This is a bit like dividing apples from oranges. I’m comparing today’s population versus an industrial past, when the two aren’t directly linked. But it’s one very rough way of comparing the sordidness of states’ industrial pasts. I wouldn’t take it as gospel, but I think it’s acceptable as one measure of the question.

If that’s too much of a stretch for you, how about this: I found absolutely zero evidence for the notion that Vermont is a particularly “green” place that puts a priority on environmental quality.

By this measure, it’s not. Not at all.

I’ve said this before, and it’s time to say it again: Vermont has no claim to superiority in environmental consciousness. We are not better stewards of the earth than others.

But, you might say, look at our forests, our wild areas, the small human imprint on the land. Doesn’t that show we take better care of our land than others?

Nope. Vermont’s environmental superiority, to the extent that it exists, is due to three factors: Small population, absence of large-scale industry, and a lack of exploitable natural resources. It’s not due to any inherent goodness we think we possess.

The fact that we managed to rack up 14 Superfund sites without a history of large-scale industry or resource extraction shows that we’re not any better than others. When we have had mining or industry, it’s befouled the land just as badly as anywhere else.

If you visit any city or town built on a river (which is most of them), you’ll notice that the downtown usually has its back to the river. Nowadays, everyone wants a riverwalk or park or other amenity. But in the good old days, nobody wanted to face the river because it was an open sewer full of human, animal and industrial effluent.

And then there’s our countryside, which looks so pristine but contains virtually no old-growth forest. In the past, we happily denuded the land for the sake of the lumber trade and the sheep boom.

Look at our waterways, choked by excess nutrients. A problem that, need I remind you, we were loath to address until the feds forced us to. Even then, we put it off as long as we could. And the current “cleanup” plan won’t actually clean up anything. It’ll just mitigate the damage.

I absolutely believe that if the Green Mountains were full of coal, or there were giant reserves of fossil fuel under Lake Champlain, or automobile-scale industry had once been present in Vermont, our environment would be as scarred as any other’s. Or maybe worse, considering that we have far more Superfund sites per capita than any other New England state.

Looking at the sweep of Vermont history and the current status of our environment, I see no evidence that Vermonters are any more diligent about the planet than anyone else. We’re no worse either; but our green superiority complex has no basis in reality.


1 thought on “Love That Dirty Water

  1. Zim

    Thanks for spelling that out. Totally agree! As with any asserted moral superiority Vermonte’rs claim, just turn over that rock and you find they are FOS. Unfortunately, it doesn’t much matter. The power of the written word is vastly overestimated.


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