As you drive into Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, you are greeted by a sign that welcomes you to “The Phosphate Capital of the World.”
Mt. Pleasant is no longer a mining town, but many of the effects remain, and they are not exactly tourist-friendly. The city tried to become tourist-friendly by replacing the failing hardware, clothing, and appliance stores on the town square with more touristy venues–antique stores, an “old-time” soda fountain, a “phosphate museum,” and the like–but, even before the current bust, that proved a failure as well, and these days the police station is the busiest business left on the square–and how long will a town of just over 4,000 be able to afford that?
But the police department is not the kind of “tourist-unfriendly” I’m talking about. I’m talking about the city’s chemical hangover from its “golden age” as a phosphate center.
For decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of acres around Mt. Pleasant sat unused and unusable after they had been mined for phosphate in the first half of the 20th century. The process left behind a jumble of steep, roughly 30′ high, roughly parallel ridges, and it was not until the real estate bubble started inflating in the 80’s (sending land prices in the area zooming from a few hundred to several thousand dollars an acre) that anybody thought it was worth flattening the “mine tailings” as they were known, so they could be turned into suburban homes and strip malls. Whoopie!
I became educated about the dirty details of phosphate mining when I was taking care of an orchard in the area,and discovered an enormous, tree-covered, long abandoned earthwork on the steep hill above the orchard–a level area like a road cut into the hill, with a huge earthen hump on its downhill side. A neighbor told me this was the site of an early 20th or late 19th century phosphate extraction. First, workers with axes and two-man saws cut all the trees down and arranged them in a long windrow. Then other workers used picks and shovels to dig out the phosphate ore and pile it on top of the windrow. The next step was to burn the windrow. Heating the soil by lighting a fire underneath it drove impurities out of the phosphate and into the atmosphere, along with a whole lot of carbon, which nobody was concerned about a hundred years ago. The laborers who carried out this ecocide were paid sixty-five cents a day. Sixty-five cents a day in 1900 is the equivalent of $17.10 today. How’s that for a day’s wages?
Now, about that chemical hangover…first of all, phosphate is radioactive. Tobacco gets a good dose of phosphate fertilizer, and the translocation of radioactivity into its leaves may be one of the main reasons why inhaling tobacco smoke causes cancer. Even raw ore, the organic fertilizer known as “rock phosphate,” contains potentially dangerous levels of polonium, radon, radium, and radioactive lead. In addition, the ore contains significant amounts of beryllium, manganese, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and vanadium. These are the “impurities” that became airborne when the phosphate windrows were burned. The air quality around Mount Pleasant in the heyday of primitive phosphate mining must have been anything but pleasant.
Phosphate refining methods became more..uh…”refined” as time went by, but that didn’t ease the environmental impact. All the toxic byproducts had to go somewhere. Somebody had the bright idea of injecting them so deep in the earth they would never come back up to the surface, but, as fracting is dramatically showing us, that doesn’t work, even in the short run, and the Zeneca Corporation had to cease and desist, pay a 3.5 million-dollar fine, and do extensive cleanup work in Mt. Pleasant due to the mess they made there.
By the way…what percent of Zeneca’s annual income is $3.5M? As near as I can tell, the company is earning about $3.5B a year, so $3.5 million, while it sounds impressive to you and me, is a mere one-tenth of one percent of the company’s income, the equivalent of $35 to somebody who makes $35,000 a year. Cheaper than a parking ticket.
In the 1970’s, I worked in commercial, chemically-sprayed orchards. One of the things I learned as part of my pesticide safety education was, “if you can smell it, it’s having an effect on you.” In the 80’s, almost every time I traveled through Mt. Pleasant, the sickly-sweet smell of newly-manufactured phosphate insecticides hung in the air. I was grateful to just be passing through. Some people had to live there.
The smell of organophosphate insecticides no longer wafts on the Mt. Pleasant breeze. The phosphate deposits around the town are mined out and it’s cheaper to refine where you mine, and these days that’s the Mideast and China, where the environmental cost of doing business won’t carve that precious tenth of one percent out of anybody’s bottom line. The good news from this is that Maury County is no longer in the top ten percent of cancer counties in Tennessee, but it’s still in the top twenty-five percent. The binge is over, but the hangover lingers on.
Several companies contribute to maintaining Mt. Pleasant’s toxic legacy. One is Cytec, which has taken over a chemical plant formerly run by the Avecia Corporation. This plant, according to “Scorecard–the pollution information site,” emits levels of developmental and reproductive toxicants and carcinogens that earn it a rating as one of America’s most polluting factories. On its website, under the heading “Our First Priority,” the company states
Operating safely to protect our employees from workplace injuries and illnesses, to safeguard the communities adjacent to our facilities, and to preserve the natural environment for all of us and future generations is a fundamental priority at the core of everything that we do at Cytec. We have been – and continue to be – at the forefront of our industry as a leader in setting the pace in procedures, programs, and most importantly, performance relating to safety, health, and the environment.
Good luck, guys!
Two other Mt. Pleasant polluters are Tennessee Aluminum Processors and Smelter Services Corporation, neither of which rank high as carcinogen sources, but which do rank nationally as polluters in the “non-cancer causing” pollution category. Their main business is recycling aluminum, which apparently involves ammonia releases. Lovely contribution to the pleasantness of Mt. Pleasant, eh? “Hey, if we’re going to recycle, the dirty work has to happen somewhere, and it might as well be someplace that’s already spoiled.”
Can you say, “source reduction,” boys and girls?
As we leave the ironically named Mt. Pleasant and head north, we soon come to Columbia, where Spontex upholds Maury County’s reputation by being one of the worst polluters in the entire nation, and Occidental Chemical Company is the “good guy,” scoring high on overall releases but low in carcinogens. Count your blessings, Columbians!
Closer to Nashville, we pass through another region where the ground is high in phosphates, but not quite high enough to merit mining. This is the area around Spring Hill, Tennessee, which has some of the richest soil in the state that is not adjacent to the Mississippi River. So, what did we humans do with this valuable food source? We put a car factory on it, which caused the rapid replacement of agriculture with myriad suburbs and strip malls, all of which are now grinding to a halt because, surprise, an ailing General Motors can no longer make money operating the factory, and they’re closing the plant. It only operated for twenty years, but destroyed an agricultural bastion that had been productive for a hundred and fifty years and could have kept on being productive for centuries, if left undisturbed. At least all the now-unemployed folk in this former farming hot spot are well situated to grow great gardens, unless they happen to be someplace where the ground was scraped down to the subsoil to make it easier to build McMansions.
This has just been a taste of the many stories of short-term gain and long-term pain here in Tennessee. There are plenty of others: the iron mines of Lewis County, the copper desert in the southeast corner of the state, toxic waste disposal in Dixon, the destruction of the state’s hardwood forests, mall sprawl around all our cities, the reintroduction of deer at the expense of agriculture, and mountaintop removal, just to name a few. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say, “I hope you enjoyed your tour of Mt. Pleasant,” but I do hope you found it informative.
music: Eliza Gilkyson, “Tender Mercies“