Pollution upsets the apple carts

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By John Bartlit

Social media are notorious for upsetting political apple carts. Pollution had the same power a century earlier and shows it still today.
Pollution has special ways to sneak past borders, leave tracks and scramble politics in its path. History is rich in entanglements of people with pollution, companies and governments.
A prime example occurred in the 1800s near Copperhill, Tennessee, which abuts the Georgia state line. Your guess is right about copper in those Tennessee hills: The ore was mined and the first smelter in the district was built in 1854.
By 1861, smelter emissions of sulfur dioxide (“SO2”) were killing off vegetation for miles around and spreading damage wider. Landowners filed a lawsuit in 1904, but Tennessee courts ruled the counties gained more value from the copper than they lost in damage.
The tangles spread. In 1906, the United States Supreme Court heard Georgia’s claim that Tennessee Copper Company was taking away Georgia’s sovereign rights of control over its land and air. The Court found for Georgia but denied the injunction that was sought, because by then TCC was building a plant to capture the SO2.
A historic twist-up in the 1930s came from the lead and zinc smelter at Trail, British Columbia, eight miles north of the U.S. border. The pollutant again was SO2, which followed the Columbia River Valley to damage crops and forests 40 miles and more into Washington State.
An international tribunal was formed to find answers. Trail was an early use of transnational arbitration to settle claims of invasive damage.
The results were payments for damages and a new plant to capture SO2. A few steps of chemistry used the SO2 to make fertilizer, which in time made profits for the Canadian smelting company.
The next 50 years brought a new kind of border-crossing pollutant. Early on April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.
Late in the evening of April 28, Moscow made the first ever official disclosure of a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. The news from Moscow came hours after Sweden, Finland and Denmark had reported increased radioactivity in their skies.
The Soviet applecart creaked with the weight of krypton and xenon gas molecules sneaking 800 miles north with their small, yet measurable, radiation.
No one would say Chernobyl brought the downfall of the Soviet Union. Yet people under Soviet rule saw more clearly the huge gap between what they were told and the verifiable truth.
For cumulative reasons, the Berlin Wall fell three years later in 1989. The trust thrown away at Chernobyl added to the rubble.
Today, China’s capital city Beijing has some 15 million residents. In January last year, the Associated Press carried this dark news:
“Extremely high pollution levels shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks Tuesday, forcing airlines in Beijing and elsewhere to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting government warnings for residents to stay indoors.
“(The cancellations) stranded passengers during the first week of the country’s peak, six-week period for travel surrounding the Chinese New Year on Feb. 10.”
That was neither the first nor the last time that smog grounded flights in Beijing. The world has changed. Today, news of canceled flights in major cities speeds to distant countries faster than pollution can.
Pollution is man-made. But it is not a man-made construct, as are companies, governments, politics and every conceivable brand of news tactician.
The result, as they say, is history. Pollution has upset some big apple carts in its time. Tea leaves warn of more to come.

John Bartlit is a member of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water.