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The New Eco-Devastation in Rural America
When workers drilling tunnels at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, began to die, Union Carbide had an answer. It hadn't been taking adequate precautions against the inhalation of silica dust, a known danger to workers since the days of ancient Greece. Instead, in many cases, a company doctor would simply tell the families of the workers that they had died of "tunnelitis," and a local undertaker would be paid $50 to dispose of each corpse. A few years later, in 1935, a congressional subcommittee discovered that approximately 700 workers had perished while drilling through Hawk's Nest Mountain, many of them buried in unmarked graves at the side of the road just outside the tunnel. The subcommittee concluded that Union Carbide's project had been accomplished through a "grave and inhuman disregard of all considerations for the health, lives and future of the employees."
Despite the "Hawk's Nest Incident" and thousands of Depression-era lawsuits against foundries, mines, and construction companies, silicosis never disappeared. In the decades since, as TomDispatch authors David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have repeatedly demonstrated, industry worked tirelessly to label silicosis a "disease of the past," even while ensuring that it would continue to be a disease of the present. By the late 1990s, the Columbia University researchers found that from New York to California, from Texas all the way back to West Virginia, millions of workers in foundries, shipyards, mines, and oil refineries, among other industries, were endangered by silica dust.
Today, there's a new silicosis scare on the horizon and a new eco-nightmare brewing in the far corners of rural America. Like the Hawk's Nest disaster it has flown under the radar -- until now.
Once upon a time, mining companies tore open hills or bored through or chopped off mountain tops to get at vital resources inside. They were intent on creating quicker paths through nature's obstacles, or (as at Gauley Bridge) diverting the flow of mighty rivers. Today, they're doing it merely to find the raw materials -- so-called frac sand -- to use in an assault on land several states away. Multinational corporations are razing ancient hills of sandstone in the Midwest and shipping that silica off to other pastoral settings around the United States. There, America's prehistoric patrimony is being used to devastating effect to fracture shale deposits deep within the earth -- they call it "hydraulic fracturing" -- and causing all manner of environmental havoc. Not everyone, however, is keen on this "sand rush" and coalitions of small-town farmers, environmentalists, and public health advocates are now beginning to stand firm against the big energy corporations running sand-mining operations in their communities.
Ground zero in this frac-fight is the rural Wisconsin towns to which TomDispatch's roving environmental reporter Ellen Cantarow traveled this spring to get the biggest domestic environmental story that nobody knows about. Walking the fields of family farms under siege and talking to the men and women resisting the corporations, Cantarow offers up a shocking report of vital interest. There's a battle raging for America's geological past and ecological future -- our fresh food and clean water supplies may hinge on who wins it. Nick Turse