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history pragmatic historian

Digging Up “Sites Unseen”

Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities by Scott Frickel and James R. Elliott.
Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities by Scott Frickel and James R. Elliott.

Back in September, I mentioned a book I read about in The Guardian, “Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities” by Scott Frickel and James R. Elliott.  Because I was so curious about it, I ordered it through our public library. The library system did not have a copy of this book in circulation, but, and here is the beauty of today’s public library system, I was able to order it and they purchased a copy to add to the collection. So, if someone else wants to read it, now they can find it in the Great River Regional Library catalog and check it out. Don’t you just love public libraries?

The book covers the results of the authors’ socio-geographic study of 4 large cities in the United States: Minneapolis, MN, Portland, OR, New Orleans, LA, and Philadelphia, PA. They were interested in finding past industrial sites of all sizes, those that used and released hazardous substances. What they wanted to see was whether industrial sites stayed in roughly the same places in cities over time or whether they moved around and what might be on those sites today.

They discovered that industrial sites churned within these cities, moving into different areas over time. Residential areas also churned, moving onto sites that formerly saw industrial use.

While this might not be disturbing if hazardous waste from such sites had been mitigated prior to residential use, the authors found that only a fraction of the very largest and most visible industrial sites were mitigated for hazards. And there have been far more medium and small industrial sites than large ones through time. These don’t typically get mitigated and are rarely looked at by regulatory agencies. Because these sites don’t get tested or cleaned up, hazardous materials likely remain and can affect those who later use the land for other purposes.

In my hometown, a housing development was built on top of a landfill. I’ve heard the residents there call it “Toxic Acres.” These folks know what they are living on, but the authors of “Unseen Sites” point out that in large cities with lots of residential churning, with people constantly moving in and out of neighborhoods, the industrial history of such sites is easily forgotten and people have no idea about the potential hazards they are facing.

Frickel and Elliott urge communities to create their own databases of historical industrial sites so they can understand the risks associated with the hazards they leave behind. They also provide a method to constructing such databases.

What I realized in reading the book is that smaller communities might have an easier time of compiling such a database. Local historical societies have numerous resources to help locate such sites over time. Because smaller communities often have residents who live there for decades, memories of many of these sites, even the smallest machine shops and garages, are still available through these residents.

The one thing I would add to Frickel and Elliott’s list of industrial sites with potential hazards is agricultural land in rural areas. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are regularly applied to these farmlands and they ought to be tested for excess amounts of these chemicals. Refer back to the feed mill I mentioned in my previous post about this book.

I concluded that blog post with a suggestion that we crowdsource creating such databases, and I stick with that suggestion, only I want to tweak it a bit.

We can help individual residential property owners research the history of their properties so they can determine whether they used to be home to industry. A good place to start is the property’s deed, which provides a list of owners. These names can be researched in local directories at the nearest historical society, which will also have other property and business resources to check. If residential property owners can do research on the history of their own properties, that spreads the work out in terms of recovering industrial history.

If we are truly interested in knowing whether a piece of residential property used to have a hazardous industry on it, perhaps we need to help residents in testing their properties for residual toxins and figure out how to mitigate them. We can’t expect homeowners to completely fund an expensive clean-up for hazards they did not produce, so we would need public funding to assist with this.

“Sites Unseen” was a fascinating book with an urgent, real-world use for history.



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