Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 31, 2010
Genius comes in all forms, but probably exists most purely in the minds of teenaged boys. Love and hate, the poets say, are closely related and oft times indistinguishable from one other. Where there is genius, close by is stupidity, creating unintended consequences.
As chemistry students in the red brick Aspen High School, we soon zeroed in on the fact that sodium, in its silvery, metal form, is highly reactive with water. After weeks of careful thought, temptation eventually won out and at lunchtime one day, we stuffed a jar containing 3 or 4 pounds of kerosene-bathed sodium into a backpack and took off on a mission up Independence Pass.
The explosion was quite dramatic, actually treacherous in its beauty. With a deafening blast, water shot high into the air fifty, maybe a hundred feet, with what appeared to be blue and orange flames at the center, near ground zero. Mud from the river bottom joined the soup and we didn’t breathe; we just watched and marveled, incongruously, as mist from the detonation drifted our way, the sound of sirens in the distance. Unintended consequences.
In the 1890s, William T. Love decided to build a canal around Niagara Falls, creating a commercial shipping route to Lake Ontario and creating an abundance of hydroelectric power in the process. His plan failed, due to incredibly bad timing, but the remains of the channel he started (about a mile long) became known as the Love Canal, and I’m not talking about the porn industry’s euphemism for a vagina.
After being used as a municipal dump and later a hazardous waste site for Hooker Electrochemical Company, the clay-lined site was finally closed in 1953. The Niagara Falls school district, desperate to expand and in spite of repeated warnings about the land’s toxicity, paid $1 for the location (and surrounding land) and began a mission of unintended consequences.
The portions of the site used for hazardous material storage were covered with thick, water-impervious clay, domed to prevent the pooling of moisture. The school district, uneducated in the storage of hazardous waste, decided the mounds of clay covering the health-altering chemicals were tying up good development ground and leveled the mounds, breaching the storage areas. Unintentionally but unavoidably, water began seeping into the dangerous chemicals, eventually creating an environmental disaster of enormous proportions.
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Sept. 10, 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb at Rulison, 8,426 feet under the surface of the Earth. The idea was to free natural gas from the sandstone formations that held it captive. That part of the plan was successful, but the brain trust in charge failed to account for the radioactivity that would make it unsafe to remove the gas from below grade. It’s still there, millions of tons of radioactive-laced natural gas, underground with unknown dangers, not that far from the Roaring Fork Valley. The Department of Energy seems little concerned about this and drilling companies are now requesting permission to drill ever closer to ground zero.
Monsanto, the agricultural biotech behemoth, not unlike the hooded shroud of death, lurks everywhere the earth breathes. It’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, used to increase milk production in dairy cows, has been alleged to be a cancer accelerant in adults and is associated with breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers. Monsanto has a near-world-wide monopoly on genetically altered crop seed, potentially driving farmers out of business who will not buy “amended” seed from them. Monsanto is the leader in “genetically modified organisms,” which includes not only crop seed, but animals as well.
It’s happening all around us. Between radioactive natural gas near Rulison waiting for the prick of the mismanaged drill bit and Monsanto’s creation of a science fiction world of genetically engineered, unnatural organisms (imagine eventual human gene mutations), our very grasp of reality is threatened by unintended consequences. It puts British Petroleum in perspective.