Unwelcome Residents: The Remnants of Industry in Middle America

Written by Caleb Barsch, ESLLC 2016-2017

Industry and manufacturing brought massive wealth to America in the middle of the 20th Century. It fueled consumer culture, car culture, rock and roll culture, and catapulted the United States to untold heights, the richest and most powerful nation in the world. But as Americans bought a lake house and the new Chevy, the same industry that gave them material wealth also gave them environmental destruction on an unparalleled scale.

This degradation is no more pronounced than in the Midwest, which was buoyed the most by production in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Heavy industry along with the prevalent use of toxic chemicals such as nitrites, variants of ammonia, PCBs, and others poisoned the sites of these factories. In 1980, Congress responded to this rampant contamination by passing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund. Superfund places “cradle-to-grave” responsibility on the polluter, and provides government funds and expertise to clean up contaminated sites.

However, 35 years later, there are still quite a few sites left on the original list. In Colorado, only three out of 23 sites have been cleaned and removed from the list. There is a sense in many land-use circles that certain areas must be sacrificed to progress society, areas that must be destroyed to extract precious materials, and refine those materials to create products that society benefits from. These sacrifice zones are normally limited to sparsely populated areas and/or areas with oppressed and poor residents.

I am glad to grow up in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a bucolic northern suburb of Milwaukee. For much of the 20th Century, we benefitted from light industry. It gave our town jobs, residents, and a means to preserve our downtown area, which is popular with tourists from Milwaukee and Chicago. However, this industry did not last forever. By 2005, both Amcast Automotive and Mercury Marine had moved out of town, but the pollutants they put into the earth and water will be with us for centuries if the sites are not cleaned up. Many people complain about their neighbors, but even the loudest, nosiest, or most disrespectful neighbor will not give you cancer. My neighbor is named polychlorinated biphenyl, but most people just call him PCB. He lives in a retention pond a block away from my house, an abandoned industrial building two blocks away, the creek that Cedarburg is built around, and a vacant lot that I walked through on my way to high school. He sometimes takes up residence in the fish we catch, the animals we hunt, and the water we canoe, swim, and drink from. He moved here when we did not know how bad of a neighbor he would become, and the government prevented him from owning any more property in 1979. He’s still here, though. And he will be here until the government evicts him.

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