Toxic waste spill sheds light on media, safety

Nothing makes up for trying to sneak a massive, poisonous glut of chemicals your way like a government-wide, “Oops. Our bad.”

The rather sheepish apology I’m thinking of was officially offered by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Russia’s ambassador to China, Sergei Razov. The Chinese government had just been caught red-handed trying to cover up a toxic river spill, a massive environmental disaster that may have serious consequences for both countries.

The spill occurred on Nov. 13 in China’s Jilin City, when an explosion at a chemical plant dumped 100 tons of benzene – a carcinogenic chemical compound with a number of industrial uses – into the Songhua River, where it began flowing north toward the Chinese city of Harbin, the Russian border and the Russian city of Khabarovsk. In a typical mish-mash of Chinese “solidarity” and information control, the People’s Republic tried to stave off the imminent poisoning of Harbin by shutting off all water outlets, while using the state-run media, Xinhua, to whistle Dixie to the rest of the world.

But totalitarianism ain’t what it used to be, and word soon got out: If not intercepted quickly, the 50-mile stretch of colorless, pleasantly-scented toxin would soon be not only a Chinese problem, but a Russian one as well. Actually, it likely will be anyway – long-term ecological ramifications being what they are. But for once, democratized media (largely in the form of desperate e-mails) and a smidgen of human decency corroborated to prevent allowing nearly 700,000 Russians in Khabarovsk to drink themselves to death with poisoned water.

So what will we, as Americans, learn from this? My prediction is nothing. The two issues we might sensibly contemplate in response to this disaster are the role of a responsible media and industry’s effect on the environment. You can see how one might not even bother to brace for disappointment.

Our mainstream media is gruesomely homogenized, but there are enough dissenters around the edges to stave off complete capitulation to the state-run media mentality – thus, things will have to get somewhat worse before they get better. Conversely, the dilemma faced with our own rather questionable methods of policing toxic pollution is that once it does get worse – and it will – it will be incapable of getting better, at least in our lifetime.

It’s not that these two problems are unknown. Rather, they are now so commonplace as to jade us, their constituents joining the vast American collection of unexamined, open secrets.

The primary example that leaps to my mind is our decade-long romance with the military use of depleted uranium (DU) abroad. DU, as the name implies, is a material by-product of the uranium-enriching process. According to the World Health Organization, it is extremely dense – about twice as dense as lead – which lends itself toward several military capacities, especially in munitions such as anti-tank rounds. A DU round will pretty much punch through anything. The bad news is that while “depleted,” this material still remains about 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium.

Also in the “bad” column is that when these rounds hit a tank, for example, “as much as 70 percent of the projectile can burn up on impact, creating a firestorm of ceramic DU oxide particles,” according to a 2002 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Add to this a typical Middle East sand storm and you start to get an idea as to what degree that portion of the Earth has been blanketed by radioactive dust in the last decade.

Although the Pentagon steadfastly denies any trend of radiation-related sickness among Gulf War veterans (surprise!), some advocate organizations put the rate of birth defects among the offspring of Gulf War Syndrome sufferers at 67 percent since 1991. Meanwhile, obstetricians in Basra report that since the Gulf War, cases of leukemia and malignant tumors in Iraqi children born around the time of the war have tripled.

Now the fun part: In the Gulf War, the United States used about 320 tons of DU in a war that only lasted about six weeks. The official numbers on our latest Iraqi venture aren’t in yet, but something tells me that over the course of two and a half years, we’ve managed to out do ourselves on the shelling front. What sort of learning curve do you imagine we’re operating on here?

Anticipating the argument that our armed forces deserve the best weapons technology can offer, let me say this: To the degree that a logistical fudgecluster like the one we now find ourselves in can be “won,” I’m all for it. But I’m pretty sure there’s a way to do it that doesn’t necessitate warping half the world’s DNA – theirs and ours – in the process.

This is not only a historical issue. It’s going on right now, and it’s something that can be impacted to a degree that it alters the future. So why isn’t it being discussed as such? Have we simply arrived at a profoundly ironic moment in history, when Americans must look to the Chinese for a demonstration in democratized media? Who knows. The poison is in the water, and no one can dam it now but us.

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.