04 May 2010

Up the Lazy River

5 May 2010

The Ruhr River area is one of the oldest and most concentrated industrial areas of the world. It has been the hub of German industry, and the foundry of their might, both military and economic. Concurrently, it is one of the oldest toxic areas in the world, and the patient reader knows of this writer’s fascination with such things. Having photographed other environmental issues in Germany over the years, a compulsion to study the Ruhr became stronger with the passage of time, and so arrangements were made for the lovely German spring of this year. As most people might know, gambling on bluebird days in middle Germany is like betting on the good sense of the American voter, but one must have faith, and so I found myself at a small airfield on the border with Holland, shaking hands with a taciturn expat Brit pilot.

WDR, the Deutsche television station was interested in documenting the process, so as Mark and I chatted about the flight plan, Cordula and Jurgen attached cameras to the struts of the plane.
After many takes of "spontaneous" greetings between Mark and me, we finally took off for real and headed toward Duisburg, one of the most industrial German cities. The industry there seems like a vision from a world gone mad, and perhaps it is. Beauty and nightmare intersperse so fast one forgets the difference, and the smokestacks and heat from the industry make flying and photographing difficult. Mark and I had a fantastic communication, though, and rarely did I even need to give directions as we swooped around cooling towers in our search for pandora’s secrets. Germany is generally better about containing contamination than the USA, but some things cannot be occulted, and my old friend coal ash is one of those. Every coal-fired power plant produces quite a lot of it (about 325,000 tons a year in the USA, probably more in Germany as they burn a lot of brown coal and it is nasty stuff (see previous posts.) We found it in spades, and Mark did an excellent job putting me where I needed to be. Very interesting the absence of TSA obsession here; in the land of the free (note the sarcasm) the TSA, police, FBI, and various other enforcers of the regime are all over you if you look twice at a power plant (or even photograph a public building for that matter), whereas here, nothing is said.

Germany has opted out of the nuclear game (though that is being unfortunately reconsidered) and is heavily reliant on coal like the USA. Meanwhile, there are these powerful rivers taking energy down to the sea that could easily light all of the cities in the area. And of course the German energy giants are digging up the country, displacing thousands of citizens, razing towns, and releasing tons of carbon, all to power their digging machines and light the bulbs of middle Europe.

As I write, the USA EPA has just released revised "suggestions" about coal ash. In an unsurprising Orwellian development, this toxic waste of the coal combustion process will continue to be "beneficially reused" in sheetrock, fertilizer, paint, carpet, etc. The list of ways how this toxic waste finds its way into your life goes on. Did i forget to mention that it is laden with lead, mercury, uranium, arsenic, cadmium and more?
Can we get smart about this?