“What Lies Beneath–The Re-Education of a Young Environmentalist” By Ruby McConnell

By the time I was seventeen years old I could easily be described as an environmentalist; more than that really, a full-fledged idealist, a true tree-hugging dirt-worshipper. I believed in a better world, the preservation of natural resources, biodiversity, sustainability, and the possibility of a healthy planet. I believed that grassroots organization, social change, thoughtful public policy, and science and technology could and would conspire to protect the natural world from the consequences of modern society, and reverse, at least in some part, the damage we had done.

A child of the eighties, I received the first wave of mainstream environmental education, learning early about the hole in the ozone layer, the need for recycling, the devastation of the rain forests, and the far from accepted notion of the greenhouse effect. A daughter of Oregon, I was sensitive to issues of forestry and sustainable practices. More importantly, I believed that environmentalism was about restoration, that somehow, the environment was repairable.

It would take more than ten years for me to come to question this paradigm. Ten years to understand that environmentalism cannot be about restoration, that the window for reversal has closed, that now, it is a matter of survival. It is a radical attitude in the environmental movement, and an unpopular one. Hope, it is thought, is the greatest motivator. Everything can be saved.

How does a young environmentalist come to this conclusion? For me, it played out in water, as a story in four parts about the loss of hope and the recognition of consequences; a cautionary tale to those who would believe that all things can be restored and a call to action with a simple slogan: Before It’s Too Late.


Prelude: Simple Facts

As an undergraduate geology and environmental science major, I took a lot of gloom and doom classes. I sat through entire courses on dwindling biodiversity, the plundering of natural resources, and the plight of the polar bear. I got used to the ideas of extinction, acid rain, and overdevelopment. I began to compartmentalize the problem as my professors did, here is environmental justice, here is deforestation, here are dragnets. The process of fixing the environment became just as fragmented as its destruction. Except for one thing. Every class, eventually, pointed out the following things.

Less than 3 percent of all the water on Earth is fresh.
More than 50 percent of our bodies are made up of water.
There is no living organism nor natural system that does not, in some way, rely on water.

Still, there always seemed to be more pressing issues: logging protests, pesticides, GMOs, and the water thing just wasn’t exciting. Besides, clean, drinkable water still comes out of the faucets, and the rivers are still invitingly swimmable, how bad could it be?

And then one day, in an introductory hydrology class, a single slide showing a trickle of brown water coming to a stop in a desert mudflat. The caption read: “Termination of the Colorado River more than 50 miles north of the US/Mexico border. The river, which once discharged into the Gulf of Mexico, now runs dry before ever reaching Mexico. This is the direct result of human use.”

With that, I had a singular and embarrassingly obvious realization. The water that comes out of the faucet? It comes directly from the rivers. The rivers? They are running dry. We are really running out of water and not at some distant point in the future. We are running out of water now.


Act I: Hiding in Plain Sight

Fast forward to graduate school. It is a sunny and clear fall day in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. We are a ragtag bunch of graduate students on a three-day field trip to collect surface water samples for our aqueous geochemistry class. We are in some of the most beautiful country the American West has to offer. Places like this are why we went into geosciences in the first place, a chance to experience the untouched wild. We are set to the simplest of field tasks, the collection of clean samples and measurement of temperature, and pH—how acidic or basic a liquid is.

We stand shivering, ankle deep in snow, through an hour of protocol demonstrations: how to filter samples and use the meter, labeling nomenclature, and field wet chemistry analysis procedures. We are just starting to break apart into work groups when our professor stops us.

“One more thing guys, try not to actually touch the water, and don’t get it on your pants.” Sure thing, professor, whatever you say.

The stream we measure is idyllic, gurgling crystal-clear water produced from snow melt not far upstream from our location. Sediment and bacterial counts are low. It is the kind of mountain water you wouldn’t think twice about drinking. Except according to our tests, the water in the stream has approximately the same pH as battery acid.

The low pH of the stream was not due to acid rain, illegal dumping, or an industrial release, it was caused by acid mine drainage. When mines are dug, particularly open pit mines, the underlying bedrock is exposed to surface water. As the water passes over the rock it reacts and releases the sulfur that is commonly found with the metals in the rock. The sulfur ends up binding to hydrogen, effectively turning the stream to sulfuric acid. There are few observable indicators of this process.

We learned the reality of this the hard way, waiting to glove up until after we checked stream flow, our hands quickly burning red and breaking into a raised rash. The next morning those of us that were less than careful woke to jeans riddled with holes, the clear mountain water having eaten through our pants overnight.

That morning, I stood next to the stream fingering the new hole in my pants and thought, “I would have drunk from that stream. We all would have.” For the first time in my life, I was afraid to touch the water.


Act 2: The New Normal

Three years later I am sitting in the back cubicle of an environmental geology consulting company. I am an underling, newly graduated with my master’s degree, and not yet trusted with field investigations or remediation projects. I am on Phase I’s, record reviews. Today my desk is awash in paper. I am reviewing a site on Bainbridge Island, a beautiful and beloved bastion of recreation just west of Seattle in Puget Sound, it is host to Native American fishing grounds and important marine habitats for the Sound.

This is my first such review. I have been told to trace the history of the property and its adjoining properties back to before their first developed use. I am also tasked with compiling a list of all the contamination sources in the vicinity and evaluating their potential impact on the subject property. The initial environmental data report generates close to a thousand contamination sites within a mile radius of the property. The Wyckoff Superfund site is one of them.

I start reading an environmental report for the former Wyckoff Wood Treatment Facility; at close to three hundred pages it is a drop in the bucket of the thousands of pages of documentation regarding groundwater and soil contamination at the site. It is the broad strokes, a brief history of the site, its use as a wood treatment facility, the amount and nature of largely creosote-related toxic compounds in the groundwater and sediment at the site, its potential for migration, and the current, and costly, remediation strategy.

The approach is robust. Large-scale remediation, physical barriers, and restrictions on developed uses, pump and treat, the works. The cost, paid for with public funds, is astronomical. It appears on paper, after two hours of review, that every possible attempt is being made to clean up the site. The last page of the report contains a single summary conclusion, which I can only paraphrase here, “It is our recommendation, based on the limitations of current remediation techniques and the extent of contamination at the site, that the current remedial measures be implemented at the site in perpetuity.”

The reality of this was overwhelming; even with our best technology, even with continued implementation and funding and even foreseeable improvements and innovations, there is no cleaning up this particular corner of the world. Worse, though was the conclusion I was meant to draw; that the contamination to our property from the site was considered not a risk, but a baseline condition, posing no more risk to our site than to any other site in the vicinity; that all that could be done was being done, and our site, like many others, would slowly absorb the impacts over time.

I knew then that this kind of large-scale industrial pollution was the new normal. The goal was no longer remediation, but the management of risk. For Bainbridge Island, like so many other sites, there was no going back.


Act 3: Closer Than You Think

It’s a few years down the line. I am still consulting but have been moved out of the cubicle and into the field. It is a far cry from the mountains of Colorado. Now, the field usually consists of abandoned industrial sites, parking lots of dry cleaners, or, like today, the playground of an elementary school in a rural town in Washington State. Now, I have my own drill crew, my own field protocols, and at any given time a dozen or more sites in various phases of investigation and cleanup. It is repetitive work that progresses in near-geologic time. Each site requiring months of sampling, report writing, meetings with regulators, and finagling of property owners, liable parties, and lawyers before even considering implementing a cleanup regimen. The idea of remediation in perpetuity no longer seems alarming, more like a reasonable assessment. That the water beneath us is not what it appears has finally sunk in. I approach each project warily. Test first. Assume the worst. I believe that I am not only open-eyed, but hardened, reconciled to the enormity of the damage we have done to our planets connective tissue.

It is 6:30 in the morning, three hours before the students at the elementary school behind which we are set up will emerge from their classrooms for recess. Three hours before they come tumbling towards us, bright balls of energy, wrapped in raincoats and sent out into the schoolyard to jump in puddles. I am here for Phase II work, preliminary soil and groundwater sampling to determine what, if any, contamination exists, and if so, to what extent. We are hoping to be gone by then, in and out without raising concern. The Phase I for the site hadn’t rung any alarm bells. This was considered a formality.

It’s common for public buildings, especially schools, to be under scrutiny, and common for them to have contamination as well, usually related to aging underground storage tanks used for heating oil or, as in this rural location, fuel for the district school buses. It doesn’t typically pose much of a threat to public health, but school-aged children can be especially susceptible to toxins, and a cancer plume at a school is devastating to a community, it’s better to be safe than sorry. I let my mind wander waiting for the drillers to punch in the first hole, thinking how great it would be to go to school in such a beautiful place.

“You think we’ve got something here?” I hear my driller say, which was odd, since drillers are known for reliably alternating between sullen silence and a steady stream of expletives, and the good ones, which these were, knew not to influence the sampler. Their job was to produce undisturbed samples, perfect snapshots of the soil in cross section, without contaminating them on the way to the geologist. My job was to evaluate the soil as it came out of the ground, carefully choosing which layers to sample based on my field tests. My field methods have, by now, evolved. My station is covered with field meters that can tell me everything from dissolved oxygen to the presence of volatile organic compounds in seconds. I know that most of the time, there is some level of contamination. I wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t. I never forget to glove up. Some days, I wear a respirator just to sample soil, but today I didn’t see the need.

When I turn to look at my driller, he’s standing by the sampling table holding the casing carefully level with one hand, the auger in the other. Heavy black oil is pouring out of both ends of the sampler. Not soil. Not water. Just thick black oil with a carcinogenic odor so strong I can smell it from more than ten feet away. My eyes flick to the windows of the school; the lights are on now; the kids are arriving. By recess, I know, I will be dressed in a white HAZMAT suit, covered nearly completely in oil and will have cordoned off the lower yard with caution tape.

I feel the last vestiges of the paradigm shift beneath me as a single question forces itself into the forefront of my mind. “How many of those kids have cancer?” I ask the driller. “I don’t know,” he replies, “but by the looks of it, we’re way too late.”




Ruby McConnell is a writer, geologist, environmental advocate whose work has appeared in Oregon Humanities, Mother Earth News, And Grain Literary Journal. She is the author of A Woman’s Guide to the Wild and A Girl’s Guide to the Wild. You can almost always find her in the woods. @rubygonewild

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s