A substantial part of the time with my chemistry 1105 class is spent developing awareness of the role of chemicals and chemistry in the environment. This in some ways is an exercise in marketing, for most people chemistry has a negative connotation.
A few minutes spent in Wholefoods will explain why that is the case. The words "natural" and "organic" appear everywhere, whereas the presence of anything "chemical" is hotly denied. This is of course a nonsense as we proceed to explore. All matter is made of chemicals, and there is no shame in being addressed as a chemical. On the whole, chemicals synthesized by men have done a lot more good than harm.
Still, the papers have been replete with stories about the venality of communities and companies in their dealings with chemical waste. First there was Crestwood where, according to records obtained by the Tribune, water was distributed from a local well even after it was shown to contain unacceptable levels of chlorinated solvents. To think that the solvents I used to wash the grease off my hands when working on the car are now not tolerated at any detectable level in drinking water. I'm still waiting for the second head to appear. Although it appears that the city officials were informed by the local EPA that the water was contaminated, these guardians of public health omitted to inform the citizens. That apparently is the norm in Illinois, and entirely fitting with its wider reputation of corruption, patronage, cover-up and deceit. (As a side note, I can see why some citizens are activists for greater transparency, and one such visited himself upon the college (forthegoodofillinois) demanding greater transparency; and the good board responded by publishing all our salaries on a website that cost $20,000. I'm not convinced that it has really done much to improve government in Illinois; but if you think otherwise I'm happy to listen.) The citizenry of Downers Grove were similarly kept in the dark about the chlorinated solvents in their wells, until they were told not to use them. Amusingly, the mayor of Crestwood is trying to tell the residents that the water was tested to be safe, despite the records obtained by the Tribune to the contrary.
Yesterday there was an update about the radioactive contamination in the DuPage river in Warrenville, originating from a Kerr-McGee plant in West Chicago that closed in 1973 - this was before Silkwood, made famous by the film with Merryl Streep. I had heard about the contamination when I first moved here twenty-five years ago (don't think about it); now, it appears that the cleanup has been compromised by the bankruptcy of the firm Tronox that was responsible for the job. Just exactly how unsafe the situation is is of course difficult to judge.
In yet another environmental story, political junkie John Kass strayed from his traditional lambasting of Chicago or Illinois politicians to discuss a recent bill that sailed through the Illinois house that permitted the dumping of building waste in old quarry sites rather than landfills. Mr. Kass suggests that the bill is motivated in large part by the city of Chicago's desire to prepare for the Olympics; the debris associated with that project will be more readily be disposed of in neighboring quarries than shipped to landfills further afield. Juxtaposed with the Crestwood case about contaminated well water, the exposure to greater risk of contaminating water by dumping in quarries seems rather odd. Yet, as Mr. Kass points out, the Environmental Law and Policy Center has been oddly silent on the matter.