A Bit of Everything

I spent a good portion of last weekend happily skating on the Pine Street Barge Canal near my house.  It was perfect winter exercise and recreation, just what I needed to bring a healthy glow to my cheeks.  (I’m a crappy skater, but I enjoy it.)  Gliding over the rough patches near the beaver lodge, it struck me how many factors had to converge to make my leisure possible.

First there’s global warming which messes with our weather patterns and has brought northwestern Vermont a roller coaster winter, with temperatures on a 50-degree swing from 40 above to 10 below.  (Last weekend was high 30s, since then it’s been single digits either side of zero.)  The warmth melts the snow and ice on top and the ensuing cold freezes it smooth.  The ice is green, with Rorschach bubbles trapped below.  Most are white; some are brown and some purple, which leads to the second factor…

The Pine Street Barge Canal is a Superfund site.  Were it not a Superfund site, there would be no skating; as a high-speed, limited access highway would run through there; a horrible fad from the 1960s that would have cut Burlington off from its own waterfront.  A contemporary version of this highway, an infrastructure zombie unbuilt but undead, is still pushed upon us by city fathers and chamber of commerce types who’ve yet to learn the last century’s mistakes.

The toxicant in question is coal tar, residues of coal gasification, which took place along the banks of the canal from 1908-66.  Not much coal gasification takes place anymore, but the gas – often called “town gas” – was for years used to produce heat and electric generation by municipal utilities.  In the great tradition of the 20th century, the wastes from the gas plant were dumped in the canal.  No one cared until survey work for the highway began and  – whoops, looks like that canal that opens into the lake, the lake so many people get their drinking water from might be full of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are nothing to mess with on a hot day (like in the Gulf of Mexico in the middle of a massive oil well blowout), but are safe in skating weather.  (Adults occasionally must remind children not to lick the ice.)  The gasified coal was part of the greenhouse gas that gives us the climate change that causes the quirk of weather that lets me skate.  Nature, even blighted and mutilated, seems to run in circles.

The pollution was exposed in the early ‘80s by Peter Freyne, later Vermont’s best political columnist, then a scuffling freelancer.  I knew him a bit.  He told me 25 years later he regretted breaking the story, he thought EPA made too big a deal of it all.  Insightful as he could be in so many areas, in others he was thick and stubborn as a wet Irish writer can be.  He was a dedicated bicyclist, never saw him on skates.

Besides storytelling there are other benefits, like having a wildlife preserve in the city.  As I mentioned, there’s a beaver lodge (the ice-licking children refer the animal as “Justin Beaver,” although we’ve yet to determine gender and I’m pretty sure there’s more than one), fox dens, the trees along the bank are a favorite winter’s night roost for several hundred of crows and there’s the tracks, den and scat of a good-sized cat. (Bobcat? Marten? Not really a cat, but maybe.)

Monitoring wells rise, pink, blue and silver among the trees.  The banks of the canal are covered by black plastic mats girded with chain link.  Green rebar handles, presumably anchored in concrete blocks, protrude.  It’s as if someone scraped away the soil and exposed an artificial world beneath.

In the end, it’s a bit of everything. It’s a recovering industrial waterfront in a small northern city.  A wetland saved from a highway by toxic waste, like the plot in a novel you buy at the airport.  It’s the Vermont Railway siding 20 yards west of the canal with a string of bulk carriers waiting to be hitched to other things and taken away.  In the late afternoon, it’s red taillights rising up Battery Street, a view only seen from the canal.  On a winter afternoon, it’s a good skate.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

One Comment

  1. Azur Moulaert
    Posted 2/1/2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Pollution looks very pretty sometimes. Check out this article:


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