Author Archives

Justin Nobel
www.justinnobel.com

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.

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

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

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

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.

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…