Tales Of Our Times: Smoking Guns Can Be Hard To Spot

Tales of Our Times
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Smoking Guns Can Be Hard To Spot At First

Chitchat about pollution is widespread these days. Such talk was rare in times gone by. Yet, pollution has always had surprising power to overwhelm high-born political plans.

Pollution has special ways to sneak past borders, leave tracks and scramble politics in its path. History is rich in entanglements of people with pollution, companies and governments.

An early case arose in the 1800s near Copperhill, Tenn., which abuts the Georgia state line. Your guess is right about copper in those Tennessee hills: The ore was mined and the first smelter in the district was built in 1854. By 1861, smelter emissions of sulfur dioxide (“SO2″) were killing off vegetation for miles around and spreading damage wider. Landowners filed a lawsuit in 1904, but Tennessee courts ruled the counties gained more value from the copper than they lost in damage.

The tangles spread. In 1906, the United States Supreme Court heard Georgia’s claim that Tennessee Copper Company was taking away Georgia’s sovereign rights of control over its land and air. The Court found for Georgia but denied the injunction that was sought, because by then TCC was building a plant to capture the SO2.

A historic twist-up in the 1930s came from the lead and zinc smelter at Trail, British Columbia, eight miles north of the U.S. border. The pollutant again was SO2, which followed the Columbia River Valley to damage crops and forests 40 miles and more into Washington State.


An international tribunal was formed to find answers. Trail was an early use of transnational arbitration to settle claims of invasive damage. The results were payments for damages and a new plant to capture SO2. A few steps of chemistry used the SO2 to make fertilizer, which in time made profits for the Canadian smelting company.

The next 50 years brought a new kind of border-crossing pollutant. Early on April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Late in the evening of April 28, Moscow made the first ever official disclosure of a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. The news from Moscow came hours after Sweden, Finland and Denmark had informed the world about the abnormal radioactivity in their skies.

The Soviet applecart creaked under the weight of krypton and xenon gas molecules sneaking 800 miles north with their small, yet measurable, radiation. No one would say Chernobyl brought the downfall of the Soviet Union. Yet people under Soviet rule saw more clearly than ever the huge gap between what they were told and the verifiable truth. For cumulative reasons, the Berlin Wall fell three years later in 1989. The trust that was thrown away at Chernobyl added to the rubble.

Nowadays, chitchat often springs up around news photos of murky air … grim shots from urban centers where the ghostly shapes of bikes and people wearing surgical masks fade out halfway to the next lamppost. We take for granted that the pictures are from Beijing, Shanghai or maybe New Delhi. We know about airline flights in China being canceled due to smog. We know that factories were shut down in the summer of 2008 to make the air fit to hold the Olympic Games in Beijing.

These brief accounts speak of more than 150 years with smoking guns in the air of different countries with different politics. In narrow terms, America’s two parties find many real flaws in our nation’s environmental and economic policies. Yet on the the world scale, we see our nation’s air quality and economy both stand high. The reasons that both key resources are doing relatively well include the contesting advocates and reliance on relatively sound institutions—courts of law, science and technology, and a free press.

Political parties hide the larger story. Instead, they select parts to tell about affairs of the moment. Details indeed matter; so does the full context.

The result, as they say, is history. Smoking guns left in the air have upset many a plan over time. Tea leaves warn of more to come.


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