Congress fights to restore a filthy past


What follows sounds like a nightmare. But it's not. It's true. If you have a weak stomach, don't read it.

I grew up in an area of Kansas City, Kan., called Armourdale, which was bordered on the east by two meat-packing companies, on the west by two soap factories, on the north by the Santa Fe railyards, and on the south by the Kansas - or as we called it the Kaw - River.

One of the things my Mexican-American friends and I liked to do was shoot rats near the packing houses. There was one place in particular that contained a high population of the critters. It was a culvert that carried waste from the packing house into the river.

At the head of the culvert was a 36-inch pipe. Every night at a certain time, raw waste from the packing house - blood, viscera, feces, and God only knows what else - was steamed off the floor and pumped into the river. Rat holes lined the culvert like a honeycomb.

Just before the stream of warm effluent would shoot 15 to 20 feet from the mouth of the pipe into the culvert, the ground would rumble from the pressure in the pipe, and the rats would emerge from their holes by the hundreds. They would fight with each other, turn flip-flops in the air, squeal, and run about in anticipation of the meal that was about to be delivered.

The stream would erupt, full of unidentifiable chunks of cows and pigs that, for whatever reason, were waste. The rats would plunge into the stream and swim around until they found something delectable, and then they would make for dry ground to eat, their hides slick with blood.

About that time, we'd put a minor dent in the rat population with .22s, .410s and slingshots. One guy had even became a pretty good archer shooting the rats. Sometimes when we shot a rat, the others would forsake their meals and attack the dying rat.

This method of disposing of waste from the packing house floor had been going on for who knows how long. The only accommodation to public sensibilities was that the stuff wouldn't be pumped out until after it was good and dark, so that people wouldn't see the brown river water become a shade redder for a half-hour or so.

On the other end of my neighborhood, the soap factories were almost as bad. A white and brown plume of foamy glop was pumped into the river day and night. Some mornings, a white crust would cover all the cars in the neighborhood, having been spewed out of the factories' stacks overnight.

The company did occasionally pay for someone to have a car repainted after it was destroyed by the white stuff. Mostly, people just washed their cars off and went about their business.

Did the people who ran the packing houses and soap factories understand there might have been something wrong with what they were doing? Of course they did. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that stuff that would eat the paint off a car probably wasn't good for people's lungs.

And not too many people, no matter how rich or poor, would think it was OK to have an open sewer of blood and guts running through their neighborhood.

But there wasn't anything we could do about it, because there weren't any laws or enforcement agencies at the time. The only reason these or other industries cleaned up their poisons was because the law forced them to.

Now, 35 years later, the politicians and captains of industry want to get rid of those laws.

Things have changed, they say. Well, maybe or maybe not. Instead of being poisoned by the manufacturing process, now we are poisoned when the products are used or disposed of.

A case in point is the report recently that the tap water in 28 cities, mostly in corn-growing regions, had levels of the weed killers atrazine and cyanazine that make it dangerous for infants and pregnant women.

Yet many members of Congress support weakening water-pollution laws and cutting funds for drinking-water treatment. Non-point source pollution (pollution that comes from water running off the surface of the land) is now the No. 1 source of water pollution. Agriculture is the primary contributor.

Yet agriculture and pesticide companies are fighting to weaken laws and agencies that would protect the public from this type of pollution. The pollution laws are hurting their ability to make a profit, they say.

The captains of industry and their lackeys in Congress say people are more worried about the intrusion of the federal government in their lives than in problems like water and air pollution. Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, now a Republican, told me this himself.

I wonder, now, if he would be willing to call up the parents of the babies in those 28 cities where the water is poisoned and try to convince them of that? Go ahead, senator, tell them the farmers' and chemical companies' profits are more important than their babies' health. Try that ideological nonsense on the people of Fort Wayne, Ind., whose drinking water had nine different pesticides, three of which exceeded federal health standards. Surely they want the government to butt out of their lives more than they want healthy children.

Ron Baird writes for the Colorado Daily in Boulder.

High Country News Classifieds