Author Archives

Justin Nobel
www.justinnobel.com

We’re Not Ready for Mars

Illustration by Matt Chinworth

Justin Nobel | Longreads | September 2018 | 12 minutes (3,068 words)

Earlier this year, as the climate crisis continued to spin out of control and our president divvied up our public lands and coastal waters to the oil and gas industry, many of us good happy Americans in the Resistance sat in our cubicles and living rooms to watch SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy hurtle toward our nearest red orb neighbor, gleefully convinced that this was the beginning of the thing that was going to save us. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event,” wrote the man behind the rocket, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, in 2017. “The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”

I find myself disagreeing and wondering what mind-numbing drug everyone is smoking. Then I find myself realizing, oh wait, this is just American culture, and we’ve had this idea that this land is the best, that we are the greatest, that there is nowhere or nothing better rammed down our throats since birth. Sure, we’re great, I don’t discount our freedoms, but were not all the peoples and cultures trampled and annihilated to forge this county also great? And here is the point: We are going into space with the same domineering mind-set that colonists have had when they’ve entered every new continent and realm.

Even the language and rhetoric of the latest space wave, which Musk is happily at the helm of, is the same. Colonizing. Taking over a “dead” world. Bringing our wonderful gifts of technology and culture to some godforsaken place. The saving of a race, the saving of an entire world, the nationalistic pride, the promise of an unfettered new land, the promise of bounty, the extraction of new resources. I am sorry, this leads nowhere good, and the reason is that there is no spirituality involved. If we enter space without a spiritual reckoning for what we’ve done to the Earth, we will kill space just as we are killing Earth. In fact, our contamination of space is well on its way. Read more…

A Toxic Tour Through Underground Ohio

An injection well near the family home of Michele Garman in Vienna, Ohio. (Courtesy: Jane Spies)

Justin Nobel | Longreads | January 2018 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)

We begin with a glass of wine on the wraparound porch of Michele Garman, who lives with her husband Tom and teenage son Dominic in the rural Ohio community of Vienna. Just 200 feet from the family’s house is a narrow shaft that the oil and gas industry uses to pump waste riddled with toxic chemicals deep into the earth, one of Ohio’s 217 active Class II injection wells. “I still enjoy sitting out on my porch,” says Garman, “but it was a lot more enjoyable before the scenery changed.”

The small white and maroon trucks that deliver the waste often come at night, she says. They contain what regulatory agencies innocently refer to as produced water, or brine, a slurry generated during fracking operations that can contain more than 1,100 chemicals and which is carcinogenic, flammable, and radioactive. Garman says she and her son occasionally smell, “a sweet odor in the air, almost like antifreeze.” One night last winter an alarm went off. “There was a red light and a real low siren,” she says, “and no one to call to see what was going on.”

Trucks line up at the K&H injection well facility in Torch, Ohio. (Courtesy: Felicia Mettler)

In the morning, before heading off to work, Garman is back on her porch with a coffee, staring at a series of tanks, where the waste is temporarily held before being shot down the injection well. “The biggest thing,” she sighs, “is the worrying. What am I not hearing? What am I not seeing? What is being released into the air? The water? The soil? What does this mean for our health years down the road? That is the stuff that really eats away at me constantly.”

Michele Garman and her family are not alone. We journey 200 miles south, to a land of low wooded hills not far from the Ohio River, where Phyllis Rienhart, 66, lives with her 78-year-old husband Ron in a stick frame house that Ron built with their son. Their town, Torch, doesn’t have a single store. But for Phyllis and Ron, it is home. “Most of my family lives on this road,” says Phyllis. “And yet we have this monster on that hill.”

The house is 1,800 feet from a mammoth injection well. Unlike Michele Garman, she has never heard an alarm. Instead, her injection well clangs. “One day we were outside here on the porch and I was thinking, it’s raining, because the bird bath was vibrating,” says Phyllis. “I went in the house but could still hear the noise — clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang — and it just got louder.”

In 2016, she and some neighbors staked out the injection well for a period of 24 hours. They observed 108 tanker trucks come and go. The trucks discharge their fracking wastewater into holding tanks. Hydrocarbons in the waste emit flammable vapors that accumulate in the tanks and are vented off the tops. In April 2016, lightning struck an injection wastewater storage tank in Greeley, Colorado, “heating the metal to thousands of degrees, which ignited the vapors inside,” reported the local paper. “The tanks subsequently exploded, shooting up hundreds of feet into the air.” The thought of a similar fireball erupting in her backyard keeps Phyllis up at night. She fears thunderstorms. She sees a neurologist. “I have anxiety,” she says.

Phyllis is trying to figure this thing out, but it is bigger than her. “What if they got it wrong?” she wonders. “What is it doing to our earth? What is it doing to our water? Not to mention the air that we breathe. I mean it is waste for god sakes, it is chemicals…And I ask them, are you going to have enough hazmat suits for all of my grandchildren? These people are dealing with paper and statistics, I am dealing with my family. They say it’s good for the economy, but I can’t find anything it is good for. And these things are popping up everywhere. There are more, and more, and more…”

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” declares Ohioan activist Teresa Mills, Executive Director of the Buckeye Environmental Network. “Ohio is in a state of emergency.” Read more…

Atomic City

Justin Nobel | Longreads | September 2017 | 12 minutes (2,920 words)

In the middle of Idaho’s Lost River desert is a green street sign that reads “Atomic City” with an arrow pointing to a lonely gravel track. One evening, some years back, I followed it. As purplish storm clouds swallowed the sun, I came across a cluster of scraggly trees and weather-beaten trailer homes. Beside an abandoned speedway sat an antiquated ambulance and across the street a neon Bar sign twinkled in the dusk. Inside the bar, I met drifter lovers from Colorado and a potbellied man in a hunting cap who worked as a spent-fuel handler for the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. We discussed nuclear energy, of which he was, not surprisingly, a fan. Then I asked the question that had brought me to Atomic City: What caused the 1961 nuclear disaster?

The spent-fuel handler ordered a shot of Jägermeister. “Have you heard of the love triangle?” he asked. I hadn’t. All I knew was there was something fishy about the disaster. Earlier that day, when I tried bringing it up at Pickle’s Place, in Arco, Idaho, thirty miles away, I received cold stares. “You won’t find much on that,” a brawny man with a girl at his side told me as he exited the restaurant. I heard the same thing at the gas station next door, and at the fleabag motel I checked into. People aggressively knew nothing, which seemed to imply there was something to know.

“One guy’s wife was messing around with another guy,” said the fuel handler, after downing his Jäger. “He got pissed off and messed up…I shit you not.” He then reenacted how the disaster might have happened: “You fuck my wife, I fuck you up” — and with fingers clenched he yanked his hand upward, making the motion of pulling a control rod out of a reactor core. Boom.

Read more…

Why Oil-Loving Louisiana Should Embrace America’s Coming Offshore Wind Boom

Sculptures and wind turbines on a Liverpool beach. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Justin Nobel | Longreads | August 2017 | 8 minutes (2,051 words)

The United States is on the verge of an energy transformation. This spring the nation’s first offshore wind farm officially began powering homes and businesses on Block Island, in Rhode Island. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maps show 12 areas that have been leased for potential offshore wind development along the East Coast, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod, and a thirteenth will be leased later this year. In December 2016, Statoil Wind US, part of the Norwegian oil and gas giant, bid $42.5 million to lease, for offshore wind development, a tract of ocean that begins about 15 nautical miles southeast of New York City.

“Since Block Island came online interest in offshore wind along the East Coast has gone through the roof,” says Lorry Wagner, an engineer whose company, Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation is pushing for a wind farm off Cleveland, in Lake Erie. “Every major developer in the world wants to get into the United States and get a project.”

In my first column we journeyed across toxic Louisiana, learning that many of the state’s most terrifying environmental problems are connected to the petrochemical industry. But is there another way to provide jobs for people in south Louisiana oil country? The answer appears to be yes. Read more…

The Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip

"Cancer Alley." Many cases of cancer have occurred in communities on both sides of the river, though the Louisiana Tumor Registry claims the numbers are not higher than the national average. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

Justin Nobel | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (4,000 words)

If you’re visiting New Orleans and want to see something truly amazing, take your beer or daiquiri to-go and walk a few blocks past the Superdome—you’ll find a school being constructed on an old waste dump.

“All the toxic chemicals from the landfill are still there,” says toxicologist Wilma Subra. This includes lead, mercury, and arsenic, exposure to which can lead to reproductive damage, and skin and lung cancer. Even more astonishing, Subra says hundreds of schools across Louisiana have been built on waste dumps. Why? Dumps represent cheap land often already owned by a cash-strapped town or city, plus serve as rare high ground in a flood-prone state. And this is just the beginning of Louisiana’s nightmare.

The risk of cancer in Reserve, a community founded by freed slaves, is 800 times the national average, making the community, by one EPA metric, the most carcinogenic census tract in America—the cause is a DuPont/Denka chemical plant adjacent to the town that annually spews 250,000 pounds of the likely carcinogen chloroprene into the air. If you think the situation in Flint is bad, there are approximately 400 public water systems in Louisiana with lead or other hazardous substances leaching into the drinking water. Meanwhile, hundreds of petrochemical plants peppered across the state’s lush swampy interior freely emit carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins into the air and water, as well as inject them deep into the earth.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Louisiana is ranked, according to different surveys, 47th in environmental quality, third in poverty, and 49th in education. Are you still gushing about your latest trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest Presented by Shell, or French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron? “New Orleans is the best,” one visitor recently wrote to me, “you are so smart to live there!” But how smart is it to allow children to attend school built on toxin-laced waste? How smart is it to allow a community’s cancer rates to shoot off the charts? Louisiana is rich in culture, spirit, and faith, yet what type of state knowingly poisons its own people? What type of country stands by and allows it to happen?

While it is fashionable to critique President Trump for his scientific ignorance, science was misdirected long before Trump laid hands on it. It is time to open our eyes and see what is really going on in this world, to critique our society’s dinosaur methods, then step back and imagine what a new path forward might look like. It is with this aim that I begin a science column for Longreads. In my first story I’ll tour us through a land America should have never allowed to materialize—it’s what I’m calling the Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip. As the Trump administration chucks environmental science out the window, evaporates industry regulations, and cripples agencies charged with protecting the environment, this tale is relevant for all Americans, because the poisoning happening in Louisiana could happen in your state too—in fact, it is probably already happening.

But for now sit back, enjoy a signature New Orleans cocktail from the comfort of your couch or chair, and get ready to keep reminding yourself: Yes, this is occurring in 2017 in the United States of America. Read more…

The Miseducation of John Muir

Muir, pictured later in life, seated on a rock. Photo: Library of Congress

Justin Nobel | Atlas Obscura | July 2016 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Justin Nobel, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

It’s quite possible that America’s future was changed on the evening of March 6, 1867, in a factory that manufactured carriage parts in the booming railroad city of Indianapolis.

The large workroom, typically smoky and bustling with workers, was near empty. Factory manager John Muir’s task was simple: The machine’s drive belts, which looped around the vast room like the unspooled guts of a primordial beast, needed to be retightened so the following morning they’d run more efficiently. Muir had already made a name for himself as an impressive backwoods inventor. His “early rising machine” was an intricate alarm clock that tipped the sleeper onto the floor. His “wood kindling starting machine” used an alarm clock to trigger the release of a drop sulfuric acid onto a spoonful of chemicals, generating a flame, igniting the kindling. For the carriage factory, this unique mind was a boon. Muir had already improved wheel design and cut fuel costs.

In the darkening workroom he grasped a file and grinded it between the tightly-woven threads of the leather belt. The file slipped, sprang up pointy end first, and sank deep into the white of Muir’s right eye. Out dripped about a third of a teaspoon of ocular fluid. “My right eye is gone!” he howled back at his boarding house, “closed forever on God’s beauty.” In fact, thanks to a mysterious immune response known as sympathetic blindness, his left eye was gone too. The promising young machinist was blind. Read more…

What It’s Like to Fly Into a Thunderstorm

Flying near a fast-forming storm in North Dakota.
Flying near a fast-forming storm in North Dakota. (Photo by Shawn,flickr)

Justin Nobel | Atlas Obscura | November 2015 | 14 minutes (3,498 words)

 

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Justin Nobel, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

Read more…