Monday, January 4, 2010

Superfund sight on New Year's Day . . .

New Year's morning I was driving along Route 151 in Nelson County. That's the state route that winds through the lower reaches of Wintergreen, where the roadside establishments smack of the chic and the chi-chi -- at least those establishments that haven't been closed by the blunt force trauma of the Great Recession. But then, Wintergreen area empty buildings are optimistically empty -- "for lease" and "for sale" signs dot these well-maintained empty buildings.

Nelson County is a wonder of social contrasts. Over the decades I've lived in Virginia, I've watched liberals, environmentalists, historical conversationists, land developers, artists, movie stars, and the wonderful Scottsville theater people dig in amidst the county's indigenous Walton-esque  folks, who stoutly maintain  conservative social and political values. These two populations eye each other warily across America's great political divide. In that respect, Nelson County is America in microcosm.

Take Piney River, a bend in the road that used to be a thriving bend in the road. Back in the days when the U.S. Titanium refinery was humming along. Today it's a Superfund site. Here's a current description of the Piney River, lifted from "Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site:"

"The U.S. TITANIUM Site covers 80 acres near the village of Piney River, Nelson County, Virginia. Between 1931 and 1971, a mine and ore-refining plant at the site produced TITANIUM dioxide for paint pigments. About 80,000 cubic yards of acidic wastes from the ore-refining process were left at the site when the plant closed. Storm run-off from this waste caused several large fish kills in the Piney River in the late 1970s. In 1980, the acidic wastes were removed from the original exposed location and buried in a clay-lined cell. In summer 1982, the State completed a grading and revegetation project at the site. Status (July 1983): Although the recent work has improved conditions at the site, acidic run-off still threatens the Piney River. EPA recently completed a draft Remedial Action Master Plan outlining the investigations needed to determine the full extent of cleanup required at the site. It will guide further actions at the site. The State is currently pursuing an enforcement action against the present and former owners of the site."
Today, 39 years after the refinery closed, driving through Piney River is a grim reminder of what can happen to the environment when humans are loosed on it, unrestrained and hell-bent on making a buck. It has a bleached, arid look, and the ramshackle empty buildings along the road look as though their emptiness is permanent.

There's one brave convenience store still open along the Piney River section of Route 151. On New Year's morning it was humming, older pick-up trucks snugged up to it like suckling piglets to a sow. Inside a gaggle of men who, from a quick glance, looked even older than I am, were grouped around a big Formica table drinking coffee. They were, perhaps, former employees of U.S. Titanium, in all likelihood starting the first day of 2010 exactly the same way they'd started the last day of 2009.

I smiled and waved and wished them Happy New Year. They smiled and waved and wished right back. I almost sat down, but then I thought my presence would disrupt their conversation. It was New Year's Day, after all, surely a day when we are all allowed to gather with our own and celebrate another year survived, another year begun.

I didn't sit down, because I knew if I did, Nelson County's political divide would intrude upon the conversation. I knew this because I'd seen the store's sign on my way in. It was one of those message signs, upon which whoever's in charge can let people know where he/she stands on important issues. And, it being Piney River, what more important issue could there be than the environment?

The sign outside the Superfund site's last remaining operational business read: The Lord showed Al Gore he just don't know!

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