Thursday, February 22, 2007

Soot on the Porch

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the Plan 12 section of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa was the conglomeration of three separate small towns, including a company town built by the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company ("J & L") to support its' massive Aliquippa Works.
Ours was probably the only family in the neighborhood where neither Mom or Dad worked in "The Mill", although most of my older relatives back then had spent close to their entire working lives there, many with over 40 years of service.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother's morning ritual, which consisted of getting my brother and I up and dressed, then go downstairs and sweep the soot that had accumulated on the back porch overnight, the byproduct of the Aliquippa Works in full 24-hour production. Even after the efforts at smoke control that helped to transform Pittsburgh in the 50's, there was still soot to sweep off of the porch until about the time my brother and I were in elementary school in the mid to late 60's. The diligence of grass roots environmental groups like the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) helped to assure that toxic emissions from steel and other generating or manufacturing plants that burned fossil fuels were reduced significantly.

Government did an ample job of trying to balance the needs of industry with those concerned with that industry's effects on air quality. They didn't do such a great job with addressing the problem of dumping of steel in US markets by subsidized foreign producers, and that and other factors put the steel industry to rest in most of the Pittsburgh region by the late 70's and early 80's.

The environmental impact of an industry of this size notwithstanding, the impact on the community at large was also profound in many ways. In my personal experience, if the steel industry was the engine that made Aliquippa go, then alcohol was the lubricant for that engine.
The corner bar was (and still is) a staple of many neighborhoods there, if only for fewer generations than in the past.

Now as the energy industries gain quite the foothold in Western Colorado, I'm starting to see some parallels here to the way that Western Pennsylvania was in my youth. There are, of course, some stark differences, but it seems that the same general approach to recruiting and motivating workers, as well as the impacts on environment, commercial and residential development, and community infrastructure and services, follow a definite pattern. There are good and bad aspects to this pattern, depending upon the choices people make in response to the arrival of this industry. The New Yorker had an excellent article in its' February 5 issue (not online as yet) on the impact of the arrival of the energy industry in Sublette County, Wyoming.

When these energy concerns feel it necessary to pay for TV advertising to tell me that "Energy..It's good for Western Colorado", that's the first sign to me that all is not what it should be. I'll probably have more to say about this down the road, but as the growth and traffic begin to take a more significant hold on this area, and the effect on essential services continues to be felt, we as citizens will need to decide how much "good" is enough, and effectively communicate this to elected officials and stewards of public lands at all levels of government. There are some community organizations who are doing a credible job of monitoring this activity already.

We as a community are going to have to take stock of the material benefits of energy development, and along with the changes to our way of life decide how much soot we want on our collective porch.

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