When I was growing up we’d make the trip from Philadelphia to my grandmother’s house a couple of times a year. As we headed north, the highway threaded across farm fields and through rock cuts in the hills. About an hour in, we’d start noticing the thin blue band on the horizon. It would slowly get larger and larger until Blue Mountain loomed in front of us and we whooshed into Lehigh Tunnel.
My Nana lived on the other side of that mountain. On this side the mountainside was red. The forests that carpeted the rest of the thousand-mile ridge had been ripped up by the decades of chemicals pouring out if the smokestacks of the giant zinc processing factories that bookended the town of Palmerton.
When conversation turned to adult matters, I’d wander to the back porch and count the dirt bike trails going up the barren mountain. When I tired of that I’d play in the stones of my grandmother’s backyard. Even grass didn’t grow in this town. Ambitious homeowners would sometimes make rock gardens for the space in front of each house that had been designed for marigolds, but most of the town had gotten used to the absence of green. When the EPA finally got around to declaring the mountain a superfund site we all snorted dismissively. My grandmother was actually offended, having long ago convinced herself that the factory effusions must be healthy.
The Palmerton factories were funded by New York bankers. Princeton University got multiple multimillion-dollar bequests in the wills of the founders of the zinc company. I’m sure there are still a few residual trust funds paying out dividends.
Today we have Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bankers orchestrating the removal of the mountaintops in West Virginia. As our technology has improved so has our capacity for ill-considered mass destruction of our natural surroundings.
All living creatures have an impact on their surroundings. My comforts rely on the coal, oil, and natural gas that are brought into our cities and towns. But I do know we can do better. I’m optimistic enough to can find ways to live together on this Earth that don’t break our mountains or poison our neighbors.