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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Legacy

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may never have heard of it, but your grandparents probably did. For more than a hundred years, manufactured gas kept street lamps burning and buildings warm. Now, don't think gasoline. Manufactured gas was a product created by roasting coal. Unfortunately, though, this process also produced a number of nasty byproducts. By the time the manufactured gas plants closed down in the 1950s, thousands of tons of toxic waste had been dumped throughout the United States. It remains a health and environmental hazard to this day. I'm joined now by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. She's been covering one Wisconsin dump site that has already resulted in the largest environmental damage verdict in state history. Ms. Nohl, take me back to that day when investigators first uncovered this waste. What did they find?

NOHL: There was a blue, oily scum on the surface of Underwood Creek, and it was percolating up to the surface, bubbling away. They followed this through a sewage pipe, a drainage pipe, and came out at a small pile of what looked like burnt wood chips. The Department of Natural Resources investigator detected a very strong, rancid odor, and they took a rusty old shovel and poked it into the pile of these apparently burnt wood chips, and pulled it out, and it came out shining clean metal. The entire rusted old surface had been eaten away.

CURWOOD: Oh, my. So what was in this stuff?

NOHL: Well, it turned out to be sulfuric acid. And the thing that was bubbling to the surface was cyanide, hydrogen cyanide gas, the same gas that's used in the gas chamber.

CURWOOD: You've seen and smelled samples of this stuff. What's it like?

NOHL: It really has an awful odor. A little bit of the sulfur dioxide, the rotten egg smell. But in the case when I smelled it, and it was only a very small sample in, like, a baby food jar, it burned my nose. The skin under my nose and even into my throat. And that was a single whiff.

CURWOOD: Uh. Now, how were these substances produced in the first place?

NOHL: Up until the 1950s, the way that utilities manufactured gas was to heat coal at very high temperatures, and the gas would come off as a byproduct. But the gas contained cyanide, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, and other chemicals that were so corrosive they would eat through the metal pipes that they'd use to pipe this gas into houses, where it would be used for heating and lighting. So, the government required them to clean the gas first, and the way they did that was to pump it through large boxes that were filled with what looked like Brillo pads, little metal fibers, layered between wood chips. And what it did was, the toxic chemicals adhered to the wood chips and to the metal filings, and the clean gas passed through these boxes and went into homes. But eventually, the wood chips and the metal filings would become exhausted and they would absorb no more of the contaminants, and they'd have to get rid of them and replace them. The problem was that they were highly flammable and city dumps wouldn't take them. So what happened is, a lot of the utilities would use them for fill.

CURWOOD: Just dump them someplace.

NOHL: Right. Cover them up with dirt to keep them from bursting into flames.

CURWOOD: How prevalent is this around the country? Manufactured gas was produced in just about every one of the continental United States. I'm just wondering how many toxic sites like the one outside Milwaukee are still here today.

NOHL: By some estimates, the EPA estimates, the number is 2,000 or 3,000 sites nationally. But some experts place that number actually as high as 52,000 sites. One facility in Racine, Wisconsin, the one that is believed to have been responsible for this, Produced, by itself, 36 million tons of waste. You multiply that by all of the other facilities that were producing it at the time, it's just an incredible number.

CURWOOD: Mary, it's been years since the manufactured gas problem was first discovered in the Milwaukee suburbs. What's the current status of the situation?

NOHL: Well, in this particular site, there were 155 gallons of cyanide-contaminated water that was hauled away to a treatment facility, and they were able to clean that water and remove the dangerous contaminants. As far as the tons and tons of the wood chips and the contaminated soil around them, those were hauled away to a landfill that had a clay liner and monitoring wells so that they could keep track of whether this stuff was migrating through the soil, whether it was approaching a water source, and, basically, keep an eye on it and babysit for it forever.

CURWOOD: Mary Van de Kamp Nohl is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. She wrote a cover story on manufactured gas plant waste in Wisconsin. Thank you so much for filling us in on the situation, Ms. Nohl .

NOHL: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.



Former Manufactured Gas Plants


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