04 November 2010

Memphis for the Night - Part I

"Here's the plan," I said to Tom Hutchings, SouthWings pilot, "we take the Cessna out of Mobile Sunday, over to New Orleans, and run up through Cancer Alley, photographing all the polluters in that notorious stretch. We make it all the way to Memphis and spend the night; catch some great music, have nice southern supper. Then Monday, we take off and hit all the coal ash dumps in Tennessee, ending in Knoxville that night. Tuesday we edit the pictures, lay out a poster, take it to Kinkos and have posters printed up, which we display Wednesday at the last EPA hearing on the coal ash ruling."

"That just ain't gonna work boy," he said, "we got weather coming in, and I don't think we'll be able to fly Sunday."

"Well then," I say, "we roll up the River whenever you say we have to, so we can catch the good weather all the way across Tennessee. We need to get all of the coal power plants in the state, especially the high failure hazard ones and known groundwater contaminators."

"I think you better get down here Thursday night and we'll fly Friday," he says.

"But I'll miss the opening at Hasted Hunt Gallery where they will be serving MacAllan single malt scotch," I responded.

Silence on the other side of the line said that duty should come before drinking, not what I wanted to hear.

Then I called my friends at EarthJustice and NRDC, proposing the idea, and asking if they could arrange the display at the hearings and a press conference.

Conversations with Emily Enderle at EJ uncovered the fact that both of us felt that even the more stringent of the proposed regulations for coal ash was insufficient to protect the public from the known toxicity of the waste. The weaker option, Subtitle D had been further emasculated by an even weaker industry proposal, leaving Subtitle C to appear more radical.

We agreed that I should come in arguing that Subtitle C still left citizens at risk from the mercury, lead, arsenic, and other contaminants in this waste, and that every dump site should be lined, monitored with walls around them, and covered so that dust could not threaten neighbors. With luck we could get another major environmental organization to propose it as well, giving it credence, and offsetting the industry efforts to walk with essentially no regulation.

As the date approached, Smithsonian Magazine decided they wanted to document the project; meanwhile, the weather man irritatingly seemed to support Tom's assertion. Friday morning dawned like a bluebird, and off we went, heading west over the disastrous Dauphin Island reconnection project (cut in half by Katrina). Knowing we had a full day, we opted to start at New Orleans, and leave more southern sites for another day. The refineries around that charming city are old, dirty, and gross. The day was slightly windy, which makes positioning the plane difficult, but Tom is good, and shooting from the same side of the plane makes working together smoother; usually one works from the window on the opposite side from the pilot.

I've flown this area of the River many times, drawn by the cultural and historical role the Mississippi plays in our culture and our industry. Huck Finn and his merry band are some of the longest-lived and strongest cultural icons in the USA. Subjugation of the River is symbolic of the conquest of the wild, implicit in American folklore. Of course we now know that conquering nature is a death knell for ourselves, but practice is hard to change. I had recently found and read an old family copy of Life On The Mississippi, and could not help but compare Twain's observations and mine on this day, all against memories of past trips.

The water is very low on this trip, giving the River a completely different feel. When the water is high, there is a pervasive feeling of boiling rage, everything pushed to the limits. With low water, there is a sense of hidden danger, every turn a cause for concern.

See some pics here.

More to follow...