In Search of the Night Sky

Originally published in Sierra.

WHEN I WAS A KID, someone gave me a copy of Find the Constellations, the classic kids’ stargazing book by H.A. Rey. I read it with great intensity but little understanding. The night sky seen from my Metro Detroit backyard looked nothing like the illustrations in the book. The only constellations I could spot consistently were the obvious ones: Orion and the Big Dipper.

My generation was the first in my family to live this way. When my mom was a child, her neighborhood was thick with stars. My grandparents had bought a house on the edge of Detroit so they could grow crops and still live close enough to the metropolis to work in the factories. When my mom walked through the fields on her way to school, pheasants would burst out of the grass in front of her. The city lights were still far enough away that the night sky was a star riot.

The house in which my mom grew up was one of two that the family lost to eminent domain as Metro Detroit’s suburban ambitions spread outward in the 1960s. The house’s remains were buried under a parking lot near I-75, something that my mom would comment on, casually, whenever we parked on top of it.

By the time I came around, the area was an Escher maze of malls, parking lots, and drive-through fast-food joints lit up bright enough to lure cars from the nearby freeway. Every few years, a pheasant would appear in our backyard looking confused. The stars were history.

During my lifetime, the world has gotten even brighter. The gas station down the street from my San Francisco apartment is lit up like an alien landing site at all hours. Affordable LED lights enabled my neighbors to install individual ones on every step leading up to their porch, as if hoping that Busby Berkeley would stop by and choreograph a dance number. Every night, the skyscrapers downtown light up like Christmas tree ornaments.

It seems like it’s always been this way. It hasn’t. Electricity’s eclipse of the nightly firmament is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Being the first in my family to grow up without stars comes with a particular kind of territory: I’m the first to think that stars are anything special. The once-ordinary is now spectacular.

I came to this realization late. It didn’t really strike me until last summer, when I, like millions of others, went on a quest to see some darkness: specifically, a few minutes when the moon would cover the sun during broad daylight.

To get to a place where I would be able to see Earth’s personal star go dark, I traveled hundreds of miles. I crossed multiple state lines. I listened to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” many, many times. Finally, I was in Idaho.

There was a galaxy out there. A huge galaxy. Our galaxy.

When the eclipse came to pass and the sky darkened to a purplish black, the oohs and aahs of hundreds of people filled the air. The campers around us had been acting nonchalant, but now that we were all together in the dark, wonder was afoot. I took off my eclipse glasses and gazed at the burning ring in the sky. It looked like a tiny live-action heavy metal album cover. It was very cool.

But it made me wonder: What else were the stars and planets doing? Why had I applied this level of obsessive road-tripping to see the moon slide over the sun like a lid over a pot when I had never even tried to see what was actually going on up there on a clear, dark night? With a little planning, I could be seeing galaxies. So I began a second quest, one in search of a night sky like the one that my grandparents had grown up with.

It turned out to be much harder than I imagined.

THE FIRST PEOPLE WHO HAD ACCESS TO public lighting didn’t seem to miss the night much. “Most of the crimes against person and property are committed at night in darkness,” a reporter for the Pittsburgh Gazette Times wrote in 1911. “It is a wise local administrative policy that looks kindly upon liberal use of electric lamps for street lighting, particularly in those sections of a large city where crooks like to hide. A sufficiently lighted city is always attractive, well-advertised, and of course progressive.”

Cities were so eager to be illuminated that they moved restlessly from one technology to another. Oil lamps were replaced by gaslights, which were replaced by structures called “moon towers,” which cities ran on evenings when the moon wasn’t full. The towers, which were lit by arcs of raw electricity, were built as high as possible, both because they were so bright and because shorter versions had a history of electrocuting people who used them to light cigars.

In the United States of the late 19th century, Detroit had the most comprehensive moon tower system—122 towers covering 21 square miles of downtown. They ultimately fell out of favor because the towers cast strange shadows and, with the advent of the skyscraper, they weren’t tall enough to effectively light the streets. Detroit sold its moon towers to Austin, Texas, where they still stand (minus the original arc lighting), woven into a city that is now so illuminated that they are barely noticeable anymore.

The moon towers were replaced by lightbulbs. Of all the technologies that have left their stamp on America, the lightbulb has become synonymous with innovation itself—a cartoon shorthand for genius and insight. I grew up taking regular field trips to a replica of the Menlo Park, New Jersey, workshop where Thomas Edison had tinkered with the carbon-thread incandescent lamp. The replica was part of a village that Henry Ford, our homegrown automobile magnate, had built to serve as an artifact of preindustrial America. On these visits, we were shown how to make hand-dipped candles. “Imagine,” the bonnet-clad docent said, “that this was your only source of light, and you had to make enough to last your parents for an entire month.” No, I couldn’t imagine it.

I also couldn’t imagine a world where light was exciting. In her book about the history of artificial light, Brilliant, Jane Brox writes that as Edison’s workshop began to have success with the lightbulb in 1879, wagons full of people—farmers, visitors from the city—began to show up at the laboratory to see the new lights. Once the visitors started showing up by the thousands, Edison stopped letting them inside the factory. They still came—they just stood out on the lawn instead.

Brox describes a funeral for a kerosene lamp held by the Adams Electric Cooperative, in Pennsylvania. “Buried here May 3, 1941,” the eulogy read, “as a symbol of the drudgery and toil which its member families bore far longer than was necessary or right.” Some farms, newly electrified, left their lights on all night in glee. Other farmers took their old oil lamps outside and smashed them.

People quickly habituated to each leap forward in lighting technology. During World War II, German bombers used London’s lights as a navigational tool. In the city’s first defensive blackout, Brox writes, Londoners found that they were so dependent on lighting that many couldn’t find their own homes in the dark. Some people wandered into trees and canals.

When my grandparents were children, electricity was distant and urbane—it didn’t work its way out to the countryside until the Roosevelt-era Rural Electrification Administration. My mother’s parents met as teenagers on the migrant farmworker circuit, and their stories from that time were not about stars but about darkness. Darkness, in their telling, was not a good thing. In one story, they stopped by the side of the road to sleep on their way to the next job. It was a moonless night, and they kept stumbling over encampments made by other sleeping travelers.

If I ever went back to that roadside, I would probably find it lined with LED billboards. According to one scientific paper, the United States, on average, became 6 percent brighter each year between 1947 and 2000. To experience the kind of night sky my grandparents saw regularly, my best bet was to go to one of the national or state parks designated as an “International Dark Sky Park”—a certification developed by the International Dark-Sky Association, which was founded by two astronomers in the late 1980s. The idea behind the dark-sky parks is simple: The night sky is a natural resource that deserves preservation every bit as much as, say, watersheds or wildlife corridors. To be certified as a dark-sky park, a place needs to make basic infrastructure fixes, like shielding its lights so that they shine only on the ground, rather than into the atmosphere. A dark-sky park also needs to contribute to making its own little corner of the world a darker place by educating visitors about its nighttime modifications and monitoring, and by working with nearby municipalities and other potential allies on a night-friendly lighting code.

Figuring out which dark-sky park to visit was tricky. Joshua Tree has dark-sky status, but the western edge of the park glows with the night haze of Palm Springs and Los Angeles (though the eastern edge still manages to be one of the darkest places in California).

After much deliberation, I decided on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The national park’s dark-sky status was still in the provisional stages (the park has until 2019 to retrofit all of its lighting fixtures), but if it failed to impress me with its darkness, I could always drive on to Bryce Canyon, which claimed to be one of the three darkest places in America accessible by paved road.


IT WAS A LONG DRIVE FROM San Francisco to northern Arizona, so I stopped in Las Vegas. The lights there were so bright and so insistent that they seemed almost like a natural phenomenon, and in one sense, they were. After Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, the then-tiny city had access to so much electricity that it cloaked itself in neon.

Wandering around Vegas on the way to a dark-sky park was the sensory equivalent of eating a tower of donuts the day before Lent. Downtown, much of Fremont Street was covered with a giant canopy—basically a fake sky—made of LED lights. The sky oscillated between images of prisms turning into birds, then flames, and casino advertisements. Nearby was a 12-story slot machine that sold $25 zip-line rides underneath the fake sky.

The next morning, on my way out of town, I stopped by the Neon Museum. The sun was so bright that the museum provided parasols for visitors. All around me, ancient signs leaned up against each other like companionable, sun-bleached giants: a single flamingo feather from the old Flamingo Hotel, a gold nugget glittering with incandescent bulbs. The museum has been taking junked neon signs, fixing them up, and reinstalling them in spots near downtown. When Las Vegas is unearthed by the archaeologists of the future, it will be fairly clear what we worshiped.

When I arrived at the Grand Canyon later that day, it felt almost as busy as the Vegas Strip. But as the sun set, the trail cleared out until I was all by myself, walking a narrow footpath along the edge of the mile-deep gorge. After a while, I realized something weird: The sun had set, but it wasn’t getting any darker. I looked up and immediately saw what was to blame—the moon. The freaking full moon.

In kids’ picture books, the moon and the stars hang out in the same illustrations like perfect pals. In real life, this huge moon was a diva so bright that only the strongest, brightest stars could even try to make an appearance. In my attempt to spend more time with the night sky in all its splendor, I had revealed how little I knew about even the most basic celestial rhythms. The planets and stars and I have never been on very familiar terms.

“Maybe if I fall asleep, the stars will come out,” I thought. “Is the moon really going to be such a big deal at 3 A.M.?”

The moon was a big deal at 3 A.M. It was so bright that it made the Grand Canyon look fake, like a diorama in a museum of natural history. At this point, there was nothing to do other than enjoy the experience of seeing an icon of the American landscape lit up like a parking lot.

As I wandered around outside my lodge, I looked for examples of the dark-sky-friendly lighting that I’d been reading so much about. All the outdoor lighting had a warm, yellowish glow and some kind of cover to keep the light focused on the paths around the lodge and the cabins. Many of the lights were designed to look old, but even the ones that weren’t had a retro quality, because they were covered. In the past, lamps were covered because the light they generated was precious and expensive and we only wanted it to glow in one direction. Now we were using shaded lamps to preserve the darkness. The only bright spot in the whole human firmament was the dish room behind the kitchen and a Pepsi machine, which glowed near the visitor center like an artifact from outer space. The front of the machine was printed with a giant photo of the Grand Canyon, as though trying to disguise itself.

I looked at the few stars I could see and tried to feel grateful.


LOSING THE NIGHT SKY IS NOT just an issue of nostalgia or aesthetics. We, like most of the other creatures on this planet, evolved to use night and day as cues to regulate our physiology. The near-constant presence of artificial light affects humans and other species in unnerving ways.

Researchers have found that women who work the late shift have a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer. This may be because exposure to blue light (the spectrum often emitted by neon lights) can lead to decreased melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone that, among other things, helps suppress the body’s nocturnal production of estrogen—and too much estrogen has been shown, in some studies, to increase the risk of cancer. A global study of cancer data from 158 countries found an elevated risk of lung, breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers in areas where artificial lighting is common, even after other environmental factors like air pollution were taken into account.

The effects on wildlife are even more clear. Artificial lighting has a documented history of messing with bird migration, baby-turtle survival, salmon spawning, and lightning-bug sex. This is largely because many species evolved to use the moon as part of their navigation system—not the moon plus a coastal hotel development.

Scientists learned about these effects on wildlife the hard way. In the mid-20th century, office buildings began leaving their lights on all night. New fluorescent lights brought dramatic reductions in lighting bills, and it was ridiculously pretty to see downtown skylines lit up so brightly. Then some cities, including Chicago, discovered that they had built their skyscrapers in the center of migratory-bird corridors. Many species of songbirds migrate at night and use the moon and the constellations as guides. The lit-up buildings disoriented the birds, causing them to either slam into the buildings or circle them until they dropped from exhaustion. During peak migration, workers would arrive to find the sidewalks littered with dead warblers and thrushes.

Getting precise numbers is difficult because many casualties are eaten by predators before anyone spots them, but an estimated 365 million to 988 million birds are killed by colliding with windows in the United States annually, and many of those collisions happen at night. Dave Willard, an ornithologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago who catalogs the migratory birds that are discovered dead on Chicago’s streets, has found that a building that turns off its lights at night reduces its death toll by as much as 80 percent. One of the most notorious bird killers in the area, a convention center on the shores of Lake Michigan, saw yearly casualties drop from a high of 2,400 in the early 1990s to a sixth of that once it reduced the number of lights left on at night.

Successes like this happen, but so do new problems. Every September, New York City’s Tribute in Light creates two four-mile-high pillars of light near the site of the old World Trade Center, in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. Migratory songbirds like American redstarts, blue warblers, and wood thrushes become trapped in the beams’ glare. Today, volunteers from the National Audubon Society monitor the light towers to guard against bird deaths. Every time an exhausted bird plummets to the ground, or the count of circling birds reaches 1,000, the volunteers alert the September 11 Memorial, which shuts off the lights for 20 minutes to give the birds time to move on. In 2015, Tribute in Light had to be shut down eight times.

Around the world, cities are switching over to LED lights, which are vastly more energy efficient than the incandescent bulbs and sodium-vapor lights they replace. But while the LEDs are better from an energy and climate change perspective, they are very likely worse for wildlife and human health. LEDs typically emit a bluish tone (though there are ones that cast a more yellow light), and that makes them even more competitive with the moon, giving them the potential to kill even more wildlife than their predecessors. In the summer of 2016, the American Medical Association declared LED streetlights—which made up 10 percent of America’s supply at the time—to be a public-health risk because of their potential effect on human circadian rhythms.


A FEW WEEKS AFTER MY POORLY TIMED TRIP to the Grand Canyon, I set out for another dark-sky park: Death Valley. I was headed for the Eureka Dunes, a place that I’d been to briefly, years ago, after one of the most harrowing, boulder-riddled drives of my life. But when I set up camp near the entrance of the park the evening of my arrival, I thought the sky looked strange. Hazy. Not like the desert skies that I remembered at all.

The next morning, a park ranger cleared up my confusion. “Yup, it’s the wildfires,” he said. Two weeks earlier, some of the worst wildfires in California history had broken out in Northern California. The smoke blanketed the Bay Area for a week before clearing. But some of the haze had moved southward on the winds.

“What about the Eureka Dunes?” I asked. “Those will be clear, right?” The ranger looked at me with gentle pity.

The only solution, other than to quit, was to try to get above the smoke. The highest campground in Death Valley is Thorndike, 7,400 feet above sea level and reached via a very bumpy dirt road. I decided to go for it. When I reached the rustic campsite set at the top of the road, I could see smoke lying over the valley like a pancake—a thick cloud made of the angry ghosts of burnt subdivisions.

The problem with Thorndike, though, was it was a whole season colder up there, and I hadn’t come prepared. Neither, it turned out, had a lot of other people at the campground. On my way back from the bathroom before bed, I saw two men sitting in the cab of a truck with its engine running, eating ramen and looking miserable. I wasn’t feeling much better, but I was determined to tough it out and had put on every single article of clothing I had packed, one on top of the other. It took what felt like forever to get warm enough to fall asleep. When the alarm went off at 3 A.M., I unzipped the tent window and looked out.

There was a galaxy out there. A huge galaxy. Our galaxy. There were stars beyond count, an infinity of worlds whose names I did not know.

I thought of that line from The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway looks out across the water and goes on about how he almost imagines how interesting the world was when it was a wilder place, about what it must have been like for man to be “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Nick Carraway clearly needed to get out more.

I stood there, shivering, for hours, taking it all in.

Food, Science

Salmon Rebellion

Originally published in Sierra.

Last year on August 24, Ernest Alfred, an elementary-school teacher and hereditary chief from the ‘Namgis, Lawit’sis, and Mamalilikala First Nations, boated out to Swanson Island, British Columbia, and began to set up tents with a small group of other First Nations activists.

A few days earlier, Alfred had been sitting in an emergency community meeting about the problem of the fish farms of the Broughton Archipelago. Many people, including Alfred, were certain the pens were the reason behind the long decline of wild salmon in their homeland. Decades of grassroots organizing and lawsuits had shifted the balance of power between BC’s First Nations and the Canadian agencies that had leased the areas to the fish farms in the first place. In June 2018, several leases in the waters of the Musgmagw Dzawada’enuwx First Nation would expire, and hopes were high that the leases would not be renewed.

But Marine Harvest, the Norwegian company that held those leases, wasn’t acting like they were expiring. Instead, it was making plans to restock the farms with smolts—young Atlantic salmon that wouldn’t be ready to harvest when the leases ended. Alfred didn’t think that the community could risk any more delays. Last fall, the wild salmon run in the archipelago had been frighteningly low.

“We probably have two years,” Alfred said. “We are not just talking about food security and what we eat. My brother is a guide. He takes tourists who come from all over the world, and he takes them to watch the grizzly bears. And the bears couldn’t catch any fish. There are probably cubs that went to sleep for the winter that didn’t get fat enough and won’t wake up next spring.”

Alfred and his niece, Molina Dawson, stood up at the meeting. “I’m not interested in this process anymore,” Alfred said. “I don’t want to write letters. I’m going to pack my bags and take my tent and go out to this farm, and I’m not going to move until something happens.”

When the group reached Swanson, they informed the Marine Harvest employees on-site that they were being occupied, then asked where to set up tents. “They thought it was pretty cute,” said Alfred. “They didn’t take us too seriously at the beginning.” (Marine Harvest did not respond to an offer to share its version of events.) The occupiers set up camp on a floating walkway above the salmon pens.

The next day, a site manager for Marine Harvest seemed annoyed that they were still there. He came up to Alfred and told him he was trespassing. “No, you are,” Alfred said.


Alfred and a fellow occupier brandish jars of wild salmon. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

The waters of the Broughton Archipelago are home to at least two dozen salmon farms, according to a 2013 survey, but Alfred had chosen Swanson Island for one very specific reason: The island itself is the traditional territory of his mother’s ancestors. As long as Alfred stayed on the island, he was virtually untouchable. “It wouldn’t be right for me to go to someone else’s territory and say “get out,” Alfred said. “But I also chose it because it had not-too-bad cell coverage. Internet was very important.”

Internet was very important because Alfred did not intend to leave Swanson Island until he knew for certain that John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia, was not going to renew the leases in June. Still, even as Alfred stayed connected through the rest of the world via telecommunications, living on the island was an adjustment. “At this hour, baby seals on the island next to us sound like zombies out to get me,” Alfred wrote on his Facebook page one evening in September. “I’m going to bed!”


A supply boat arrives with shack-building materials. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

When the fish farms arrived in the 1980s, residents of the archipelago did not welcome them with open arms, despite promises of jobs and money. “Our people from the very beginning were very skeptical,” Alfred said. “Right off the bat, the old people—a lot of people call them ‘elders,’ but in my tradition the word that we use literally means ‘old people’—said, ‘Why would we do this when Mother Nature grows salmon for free? We would be acting as gods.’”

But it wasn’t up to the First Nations. The farm leases had been negotiated with the Canadian federal government. Over the next few decades, a series of court rulings gave legal backing to something that had always been historically true: Many of Canada’s indigenous tribes, particularly those in the western provinces, had never signed treaties giving up control over their territory.

In 1989, Carrier Lumber submitted a proposal to the BC government to log forest on Xeni Gwet’in land. In response, the Xeni Gwet’in declared the forest off limits for all logging, mining, and road building but said that non-natives were welcome to ask permission to “come and view and photograph our beautiful land.” It took the case decades to reach its conclusion, and when it did in 2014, a new legal precedent was set: Any First Nations land that was never formally ceded to the Canadian government could not be developed without the consent of those First Nations that have a claim to it. That included land that had been used for hunting or foraging, not just land that had been continuously occupied.

By then, BC’s native salmon population was in steep decline. “In the mid ’90s—that’s when my dad sold his fishing boat,” Alfred said. “The farms went in in 1989. We started to see effects almost right away.” Commercial fishery catches between 1995 and 2005 were the lowest in recorded history, and then the catch halved again between 2006 and 2014.

There were several theories as to why the salmon runs were diminishing. Salmon farms around the world were struggling with an epidemic of sea lice: tiny crustaceans that latch onto salmon in ocean waters and feed off their blood and tissue. Were fish farms providing year-round habitat to a parasite that normally would have limited opportunities to latch onto juvenile wild salmon as they emerged from streams and headed out to the open ocean? Scientific research showed that sea lice from fish farms could infect nearby wild salmon. Was that one reason why so few fish were coming back from the ocean each year?

Salmon farms were also facing periodic epidemics of piscine reovirus. A study by Alexandra Morton, a whale researcher who began studying fish farms after the area’s orca population declined, found that 95 percent of farmed Atlantic salmon had the virus, and that about 40 percent of wild Pacific salmon that spawned near the salmon farms, like those in the Broughton Archipelago, also had the virus. In areas of BC that were farthest away from salmon farms, the incidence of the virus was only 5 percent. Piscine reovirus causes heart damage, and some biologists surmised that it could be preventing wild salmon from making it to the ocean, or from surviving the long journey upstream to spawn.

But none of this changed the fact that, in the more than 20 years since salmon farming began, farmed salmon had become a $1.2 billion industry and BC’s largest agricultural export. A third of those salmon were coming from the Broughton Archipelago. Alaska had managed to ban farmed salmon, but it did so in the 1990s, before the industry got too powerful to overcome resistance. Meanwhile, companies like Marine Harvest had begun to hammer out agreements with some local tribes, which made agitating to remove the fish farms more politically complicated.

To Alfred, there’s no amount of compromise that would be worth hammering out. “It is a lot of money to these impoverished communities, but it’s a drop in the bucket to these companies,” he said. “The people who have signed those agreements are not proud of them.” According to Alfred, some tribal members believed that just getting the farms to operate differently might work: for example, moving pens farther away from traditional salmon migration routes, or closing down the farms periodically to break the lifecycle of any parasites or viruses.

But those changes were hard to monitor, hard to enforce. Alternative solutions to closing down the farms, like moving them far away from wild salmon and into facilities on land, weren’t happening fast enough. BC’s First Nations had started their own above-ground fish farm, Kuterra, which began farming in 2013, but no similar operations had followed. “The most important thing to remember is that it’s been done and we’ve proved our point,” Alfred said. “Its only downfall is that it doesn’t actually make money.” (Kuterra recently began to turn a profit but is unlikely to recoup its start-up costs.)


Marine Harvest’s salmon farm seen from Alfred’s cabin. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

A few weeks into the occupation, Alfred and the other occupiers (there have been anywhere from two to 18 people living on the island at any given moment) moved into an enclave of deserted cabins on the island, which had a good view of the Marine Harvest operation. Swanson Island is not the only occupation. Another Marine Harvest location, Midsummer Island, was occupied in September by a group of Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw and Namgis, including Alfred’s niece. They agreed to leave in November after Marine Harvest filed an injunction against them in court. In October, the Matriarch’s Camp, led by Tsastilqualus Umbras, a Ma’amtagila grandmother, set up outside the offices of BC premier John Horgan in Langford, relocating at one point to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Gradually, it began to look like the occupations were having some effect. In October, Lana Popham, the BC minister of agriculture, sent a letter to Marine Harvest, warning it not to stock any more salmon at its farm in Port Elizabeth, whose lease was set to expire in June 2018, because “we are entering into sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open net pen salmon farming in their territories.”

A few days later, Horgan said at a salmon farm industry meeting that companies needed to remember that their leases were “not in perpetuity.” Marine Harvest objected to this messaging. “If there’s a better way to do business, we’re always interested,” Marine Harvest Canada spokesman Ian Roberts told CBC News, “but today they are very, very good sites for growing fish.”

Then, in November, a state senator in neighboring Washington announced he was planning a bill that would phase out all fish farm leases there. With the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars preserving wild Pacific salmon runs, said Senator Kevin Ranker, “raising invasive Atlantic salmon that we classify by state law as a pollutant makes no sense.”

The bill was almost certainly the direct result of the September escape of over 160,000 Atlantic salmon from a fish farm run by a company named Cooke Aquacultlure. Atlantic salmon have been used for West Coast fish farming because they are believed to not be able to survive in the Pacific Ocean on their own, and because they could live closer together than their Pacific cousins without attacking each other. Months after the escape, however, fishers in Washington are still reeling in Atlantic salmon. In December, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources terminated the lease on the farm where the escape took place.

Alfred spent New Year’s Eve on Swanson Island. “Swanson Occupation Day 131!” he announced cheerfully, camera trained on the orange-yellow Wolf Moon rising over the bay. “Happy New Year from everyone at Swanson Island Occupation!” He, some friends, and their children took all the pots and pans outside and banged them together in celebration. It wasn’t what he had planned a year earlier, but then, a lot of things had happened in 2017 that he hadn’t planned on, beginning with his decision, in August, to take a leave of absence from teaching and to occupy a fish farm instead.

As a hereditary chief, Alfred was raised with a particular responsibility to keep alive culture and tradition, and to carry it forward. “I quit my job so that I could have peace of mind,” Alfred said. “I didn’t want to lie to my students anymore about being stewards of the land when I wasn’t doing it.” A group of his former students, now high schoolers, organized two school walkouts in solidarity and demanded that the local supermarket not stock farmed salmon.

Alfred has heard that Marine Harvest will restock the pens off of Swanson soon. There are rumors afoot that the management of Canada’s fish farms would be taken from the Department of Fisheries, and Alfred remains optimistic. He suspects that early on in the occupation, Marine Harvest had tried to get a permit to evict him but then realized that his ancestral relationship to the land made that impossible. “They know,” Alfred said. “They know they are going to lose.”


Where Have All the Salmon Gone?

Originally published in Sierra.

To get to the largest surviving population of wild spring Chinook salmon on the Klamath River, I drive farther north than I’ve ever been in California, then turn right. Gradually, the highways disappear, and the roads narrow. Commerce becomes more improvisational. Grocery stores and restaurants disappear and in their place there is a farm stand staffed by Gandalf in overalls and a naked baby cooing to itself and scooting along on a tricycle. The roads become more improvisational, too, and begin to curve and twist until they nearly double back on themselves, until my rental car is trundling along a single lane of dirt and gravel carved into the edge of a cliff. It becomes clear to me that if I meet another car going in the opposite direction that one of us is going to die, probably me. But when I do round a corner and see another car it does a set of maneuvers that seem to bend space-time, and somehow we pass by each other smoothly, and continue on our way.

My destination is a one-room schoolhouse in Forks of Salmon, California, a place where the closest thing to a town square is a tree that you sit under to drink beer. During the day, a gang of horses roams parking lots and lawns, looking for dumpsters or unattended coolers to break into.

Inside the schoolhouse, the Forest Service and the Salmon River Restoration Council, a local nonprofit, are checking out swim gear to the 90 or so people who have arrived for the annual spring Chinook salmon count. Tomorrow, we are going to swim down 75 miles of the Salmon River, counting every spring Chinook salmon we run across.

Salmon River | Screengrab from video by Mikal Jakubal

Big changes are coming to the Klamath, which was once Manhattan for salmon. Local kids from the Yurok and Karuk tribes grow up on stories about how during the old spring and fall Chinook runs the water was so thick with fish that you could practically walk across them. In 2020, demolition will begin on four major dams—Iron Gate, John C. Boyle and Copco 1 and 2. It will open up 300 miles of salmon habitat that has been closed off for nearly a hundred years—the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.

The spring Chinook is the first fish to return from the ocean as the winter comes to an end. It’s hard to overstate its importance to the tribes who live on the Klamath, as a religious symbol, and as a literal means of survival. As time goes on it may prove even more critical, because it may prove more resistant to the effects of climate change than the fall Chinook because it travels early in the year, when water levels are high and cold. But the spring Chinook became extinct in many tributaries of the Klamath decades ago: a casualty of dams, agricultural runoff, and water being diverted to farms and orchards as far away as California’s Central Valley. Remove the dams, and it’s possible that the Chinook on the Salmon River could repopulate their former territory.

The spring Chinook persists on the Salmon because even though gold mining and logging did a number on the local ecology, the river was never dammed or diverted. Its headwaters come out of Marble Mountain wilderness, and the tributary itself is surrounded by Forest Service land. This is one of the reasons we’re even able to count the salmon in the first place: private landowners often restrict river access, out of fear that letting people collect data will lead to more restrictions in the future.

Map of the Klamath Basin courtesy of Shannon1 

Because the Salmon river is cold, fast, and full of rocks, our goal is to cover as much of our bodies with neoprene as possible. I successfully check out a snorkel, a wetsuit, a sun-faded jacket with a hole in the elbow, neoprene gloves, two funky-smelling neoprene socks with holes in the heels, and shoes that look like regular hiking boots, but which turn out to be underwater hiking boots.

The only thing I’m missing is a cowl, which looks like a neoprene ski mask. There is only one cowl left. It has “Small” written on the side of it in magic marker, and it looks like it would be appropriate for a toddler.

“Do you have any more cowls?” I ask. “My head is really big.” I point to my head, for reference.

The woman supervising the bins looks at me speculatively. “Why don’t you just try it?”

I pull the cowl gently over my head. Then less gently. Then violently. Improbably, it slides into place and breathing suddenly becomes difficult. I claw at my face and dance backwards, like a dog trying to back out of a veterinary cone.

I’m not sure how I get myself out of the cowl but when I do, I am relieved to see that all humans in this room are struggling with their wetsuits in their own special way. Everyone is working out their own technique. Some people hop up and down and yank. Some contort. The overall result, played out across the room, is that of a very energetic modern dance performance.

Any salmon who make it to the Salmon River to spawn will find perfect conditions to reproduce – but that’s if they make it. It’s July 2017, the first summer after the worst drought in California’s recorded history. Last year, the Chinook count was around 398—a fraction of what it had been before the drought, and half the average run over the last 20 years. During the worst of the drought years, the farmers of California’s Central Valley filed court injunctions to block releasing water from dams that was meant to lower water temperatures and save wild salmon. Both the Karuk and the Yurok voluntarily reduced their subsistence and ceremonial fishing this year, in the hopes that the spring Chinook will recover.

The salmon counters who have come here cut a wide swath across subcultures and archetypes: the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife, the salmon scientists, the teenager from the local Karuk tribe with the green hair and lip ring, the dive school students from Humboldt State, the back-to-the-land old timers, the documentary filmmaker, the pot entrepreneurs, the real estate agent from a few towns over who keeps bringing the conversation back to nearby homes for sale, and the high school kids working for the Youth Civilian Conservation Corps. The high school kids have perfect California teen names: Trinity, Cassidy, Reno, Chainsaw. (Chainsaw is thrilled to be monitoring salmon this summer, since he spent the last one cleaning park toilets.) There’s the guy in a utilikilt, another guy who describes himself as a “salmon groupie,” and the woman with a crystal pendant dangling in the middle of her forehead.

They’re drawn here for different reasons. Some people have traveled in from nearby towns just for the opportunity to socialize. “I’m here for the free camping and free food,” says one of the Humboldt State students, adding that it’s easier to dive here right now than in Arcata Bay, where the fertilizer runoff from local weed farms trickles down to meet the ocean. “I felt the call of the salmon and the oceans last May,” says the woman with the crystal, and leaves it at that.

Salmon counter, underwater | Photo courtesy of Mikal Jakubal

Once we have all assembled more or less complete wetsuit setups, we trudge down to a nearby pond to practice the defensive maneuvers we’re supposed to do if we encounter some rapids (roll on your back, use your feet to push yourself away from rocks before the rocks slam into you, never try to stand up because if your foot gets caught, the river can push you underwater and drown you in no time flat). If we get swept downstream, the instructions are to hike to the nearest house and ask to use their phone. There’s no cell reception out here, and anyone living nearby knows all about the salmon count.

The next morning, we split into groups that are each assigned a section of the river. Out of the water, we trudge over boulders, with the Klamath National Forest stretching around us in all directions. Underwater, the world is cold and alien. One minute, the river bottom is gravel, just a few inches away from the mask of my snorkel, and then the next, the river bed falls away and I’m floating over an inky expanse that seems to have no bottom. There’s no mistaking that this is earthquake country. There’s also no mistaking that this underwater world is empty. One of the most experienced divers in our group sees two tiny salmon, the rest of us see none. It’s an eerie feeling—like wandering through a beautiful house that is mysteriously vacant.

Navigating our section of the river is not easy. Where the river narrows, the stream is violently fast, and we crawl out onto the boulders at the edge of the streambed and hike for a long time  in our soggy frogman getups. A few times I underestimate how fast the current is, and find myself pinging from rock to rock, like I’m in a live-action pinball machine.

During these times, I find myself wishing I was a little bit more like a salmon—flexible, without so many extremities. Later, I find out that this is a rough environment for salmon too. Before the late 1800s, when gold was discovered on the Salmon River, the river was much wider, and moved more slowly. When gold miners arrived they washed away the cliffs with high pressure hoses, and filled the river valley with rubble, leaving a fast, narrow channel. Juvenile fish will get banged up on the rocks or flushed out into the Klamath, where they’re done in by parasites and bacteria from agricultural runoff.  For that reason, there’s a whole division of salmon habitat restoration that just involves slowing rivers down by re-creating creeks and floodplains that were filled in or blocked off by mining. Even before a floodplain is completely restored, often a troupe of beavers will show up and finish the job.

Salmon counters | Photo courtesy of Mikal Jakubal

When I see the orange ribbon that marks the end of our section of the river, I relax and float. This turns out to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had, because what looks like a flat glassy pool at the end pours into a section of rapids that was deemed too dangerous for the group to navigate.

I go over a waterfall. It’s only a few feet high, but it’s fast, and I’m out of my league. It’s a dreamlike sensation to completely lose control of your body. The water swings me into a boulder, and as my head hits the rock the sound is like someone has rung a bell that also happens to be me. I try to remember what I was supposed to do to not die in this situation, and then I pass a rock big enough to grab with both arms. I drag myself on top of it and lie there, scared to move any more. The rest of the group, which has been screaming and running along the shoreline, catches up to me. “That was great!” says the group leader. “You did that exactly right!” I am torn. I would like to believe that I am great, and I did do that exactly right. As a former child care professional I know that this phrasing is the exact same tactic that people use on kids when they’ve hurt themselves, and don’t want them to start crying.

Back at the schoolhouse, we eat pasta dinner. The old timers reminisce about how, before the numbers dropped so severely, the salmon count used to conclude with spring Chinook purchased from the Yurok, and cooked the way that it was in this area for thousands of years, which is skewered like kebabs and smoked around an open fire. The spring Chinook is fattier than salmon that migrates later in the year, so it’s perfect for this type of cooking, and when I ask people what it tastes like, they just look off into the distance and say, wistfully, “It’s the best fish you’ll ever have.”

When I wake up the next morning and can’t hear out of one ear I will sit down on a rock and allow myself a moment of perfect sadness at the possibility of having lost 50 percent of my hearing to something so basic and boring as a boulder. The sadness will prove unnecessary—as it turns out, the absence of sound is just swelling from a perforated eardrum, plus an infection from the river water that we were warned so sternly not to drink. After a few weeks of having to rotate my head so that my good ear is facing whoever I’m talking to, it’s like the boulder never happened.

That evening we learn that the recorded count this year is 110—just a little under the all-time low of 90, back in 2005, and a far cry from the highest recorded count of 1,593 back in 2012. At a conference the next day, the tone is somber. “When I heard last night the number of salmon in the system it was like a kick to the gut,” says Josh Saxon of the Karuk Council. “We are failing this species. If this disappears so will our ceremonies.”

“These fish are our relations. I don’t take that lightly.” says Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council. “Whether or not you subscribe to God or world renewal, this is about survival and place. That’s why we got to keep the fish here. We as humans—we are the problem. But we’re also the solution.”

Later, after numbers come in from Wooly Creek, that count is raised to 160, which is still dangerously low. “This year we had perfect conditions,” says Karuna Greenberg, Restoration Director for the Salmon River Restoration Council. “The river was perfect, all summer long. The eggs would have grown up on the river under really good conditions. The rearing conditions would have been good. The fish would have been unlikely to get diseases. If we even had 350 or 400 fish …”

But for the moment, salmon alarm can wait. Back where the salmon counters are camping, there’s a bonfire. The Humboldt State students are playing card games with a deck made of cards depicting California wildflowers, and scheming about how to sneak into a scientific symposium tomorrow. The group playing guitars around the fire has tripled in size, and now, improbably, includes an upright base. The haze from the Island Fire has cleared temporarily and the sky is full of stars.

Out of the corner of my eye I see one star drop casually, like a swimmer leaping off a high dive. Then I see another, and another. Even though I’d forgotten about it, the Aquarid meteor shower kept going about its business and happened anyway. That’s why I’m here really—probably why we’re all here. Even more intoxicating than the idea of a nature that needs protecting is the idea of nature so wild that it doesn’t need us at all to survive. I look up, and another star falls.

Science, Uncategorized

We’re Teaching Kids the Wrong Ways to Fight Climate Change

Originally published in Sierra.

When Seth Wynes was teaching high school science in Canada, there was one question his students asked him that he had trouble answering: What can I do to stop climate change? The existence of climate change was an unpleasant surprise for many of them—they had grown up hearing adults talk about things like peak oil in doom-laden tones, so the news that humans would trash the atmosphere before they even reached peak oil filled them with alarm. They wanted to do something.

Wynes had a few ideas that he felt were good: Bike more. Take transit. Eat less meat. Change your lightbulbs. Recycle. But it bothered him that he didn’t really know how effective those solutions were. It bothered him even more that nobody else seemed to know either.

Wynes decided to go back to school. This time, he focused on climate change. He chose Lund University in Sweden so that he could study climate change in a country that not only believed climate change was real but was actively trying to fix it. With the help of Kimberly Nicholas, one of his professors at Lund, Wynes sought out and analyzed research quantifying the effects that lone, individual actions could have on carbon emissions. He spent long nights with research papers like “Electricity and Water Consumption for Laundry Washing by Washing Machine Worldwide” and “Finding Your Dog’s Ecological ‘Pawprint’: A Hybrid EIO-LCA of Dog Food Manufacturing.”

Months later, Wynes and Nicholas had the list his high school teacher self had always wanted: 12 individual actions, ranked in order of effectiveness and whenever possible, in effectiveness by country. For example, an American or an Australian who gave up their car saved much more in terms of emissions than a resident of Great Britain did, because residents of the United States and Australia drove so much more to begin with. In all three countries, there was one action whose effect towered over the others: Have one fewer child.

Illustration courtesy of Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, 2017, Environmental Research Letters

The 12 actions weren’t the only lifestyle choices that Wynes and Nicholas studied—just the ones that held up to mathematical analysis. Composting fell by the wayside after Wynes couldn’t find a paper rigorous enough to cite. Dog ownership was deemed similarly complicated after Wynes and Nicholas only found two papers with opposite verdicts, though they both felt safe concluding that smaller dogs were better than large ones. The math around green energy got hazy in European countries because of a problem with double-counting in some areas, but was clear-cut enough in areas with carbon-heavy electrical grids like North America and Australia to merit inclusion.

Then Wynes began comparing their resesarch to climate-related documents aimed at teenagers and adults in the three most high-emitting countries on the list: Canada, Australia, and the United States. He wanted to know—were the actions on his list the same as the actions these documents recommended?

They were not, as Wynes and Nicholas reveal in a paper that was published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The most high-impact actions on his list, like living without a car, avoiding transatlantic flights, and eating a plant-based diet were often ignored entirely in educational climate change materials, which favored less-effective actions like recycling and using more energy-efficient lightbulbs. Government documents for Australia, the United States, and Canada all recommended driving more energy-efficient cars, but only one country—Australia—suggested living without a car at all, even though doing so had a cascading effect on emissions by keeping people within densely populated areas, where the structure of the city kept per-capita energy use at half the level of people living in single-family detached suburban housing.

Wynes combed through 10 Canadian high school textbooks used by 80 percent of Canadian teenagers (the sheer number of American high school textbooks kept him from doing the same here, but he encourages anyone else to do so). He found 216 individual recommended actions to mitigate climate change, and a similar focus on changes with moderate impact on the climate, as opposed to those with a higher impact. Eating a plant-based diet was presented as roughly equivalent to eating less meat, even though a completely plant-based diet can be 2 to 4.7 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Driving more efficiently was mentioned almost 30 times, but living without a car entirely was mentioned only six times. Out of the 216 recommended actions, only eight were ones that made Wynes’s and Nicholas’s top four.

The single most important thing that an individual could do—have one fewer child than intended—was not mentioned at all. On one level, this is easier to understand—several countries have a tradition of relying on an expanding birth rate as a way to subsidize the retirement of its older citizens. Systematic attempts to reduce birth rates in many countries have a history of being applied selectively, in ways that can only be described as racist and classist. But still, a concerned teenager might want to know that a U.S. family choosing to have one fewer child than they originally intended would, as Wynes and Nicholas put it, “provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.”

When I asked Wynes about why he thought publications aimed at teenagers had such a strong emphasis on climate actions with only moderate impact, he hesitated, then hypothesized that the problem might be hope. Specifically, the hope that new technology would be the solution to this new, energy-related problem, the way that the Green Revolution was a solution to the limitations of agriculture, or the way that the catalytic converter cut urban air pollution. Only one of the four most-effective options—buying energy from renewable sources—requires the kind of technolgical innovation that has gotten us out of environmental pinches in the past. We already have the technology to have fewer children and to get around using fewer cars. Many short-distance air routes could be replaced with high-speed rail, and the knowledge to make that work well has been around since the 1970s.

Whether or not the kids are learning it in school, we may already be living in a world where expectations are adjusting. In the United States, the percentage of 20-somethings with driver’s licenses has fallen by 13 percent over the past three decades, and they prefer to live in cities, even if they can’t afford to live there. Even if young people do eventually buy cars and move out to the suburbs as they get older, by driving less now they’ve reduced the pollution they’ve contributed to in their lifetime.

In my years writing about climate and the environment, I’ve seen a lot of what Wynes’s and Nicholas’s paper describes. I have been told by scientific papers to buy a more-fuel-efficient car, as though the existence of people like myself who have never owned a car in the first place does not exist. I have seen teenagers being told they can fight climate change by shopping at thrift stores and taking shorter showers. As a communication strategy, it felt a bit off—teenagers as I know them are idealistic and intense, more comfortable at making dramatic statements and life changes than most adults are.

What would they do if they knew the whole truth about this troposphere we’re handing off to them? I eagerly await that study.


A New History of Love Canal

Originally published at Grist.

If you’re traveling through the suburbs around Niagara Falls, you might notice that one of them is missing. There are still roads, and you see empty driveways and old sidewalks hiding in the grass. But no one lives here anymore.

There aren’t any signs saying where you are, so I’ll tell you: It’s Love Canal, an idyllic suburb that caught the country’s attention back in 1978 when its residents realized that they were living on a toxic-waste landfill. Love Canal’s residents organized, protested, and kept their story in the media for a year. Along the way, they helped launch the modern environmental movement.

fire hydrant - Niagara Falls, NY Oct. 2012

A new history of that struggle, Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present by the environmental historian Richard S. Newman, reveals details that I’d never heard before. Love Canal’s evocative name? The land used to be owned by William T. Love, a real-estate dreamer of the 1890s who dug the canal in the hopes of creating a model city along its banks. Love imagined his city would be powered by hydroelectric energy poached from Niagara Falls. In contrast to the dirty, coal-powered factory towns then powering the American industrial revolution, Love’s city would boast such luxuries as clean drinking water, lines for telephone, gas, and water, as well as mail delivered by pneumatic tubes.

Love Canal Book Cover

In 1894, local papers reported that the excavators hired by Love “have already made quite a hole and a big pile of dirt,” but that was as far as the model city ever got. Love lost a ton of money, then quit and moved west. Local kids used the canal as a swimming hole in the summer and an ice pond in the winter, until a local producer of bleaching powder, rubber, and explosives noticed it.

From 1942 through the early 1950s, that company, Hooker Electrochemical, filled in the unfinished canal with 22,000 tons of toxic waste, much of it leftover from Hooker’s work outfitting the military for World War II.

In 1952, the Niagara Falls school board approached Hooker and asked if the company would be willing to part with the land so that it could build a suburb and a new elementary school on it. Several Hooker company officials objected. Maybe the land was safe for a park, they said, but not housing. Still, in April 1953, Hooker sold the former canal to the school board for $1. The deed of sale mentioned that the site was brimming with chemical waste, and that, by signing the deed, Niagara Falls assumed all liability for any problems.

When the school board then sold the land to a housing developer in 1957, Hooker executives warned city officials against putting houses on the site. “There are dangerous chemicals buried there in drums, in loose form, in solids and liquids,” A.W. Chambers, a Hooker representative, told the Niagara Falls Gazette. All they could do was warn, though — Love Canal was no longer Hooker’s property. The developers built hundreds of houses atop the landfill anyway.

To the thousands of people who moved in during the 1960s and 1970s, Love Canal was a nice neighborhood — working-class and friendly. But weird things happened. When the kids threw rocks against the pavement they exploded like firecrackers. Manhole covers launched themselves into the air without warning. Kids playing baseball would get strange, chemical burn-like rashes when they slid across the grass. Dogs went bald.

Neighbors shared stories and slowly realized they had more than their share of miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer. In 1976, New York State health officials started testing the area around Love Canal for dangerous chemicals. The following year, a regional officer for the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter to his bosses in Washington, warning that the area around the canal was so polluted that the state’s only option was to buy up the 40 or 50 homes closest to the canal and tear them down. Local officials panicked, and asked for more tests.

Love Canal Killing Grounds
University of Buffalo

More tests just made everything scarier: 82 different chemical compounds were found around Love Canal. They were sitting in puddles, hiding in sump pumps, and seeping through basement walls. Many, like benzene, were known carcinogens. State health officials found that women in the neighborhood miscarried at 1.5 times the level of the general population. Some 13 percent of the babies born in one section of houses near the canal had birth defects. The state health commissioner advised evacuating all pregnant women and children under the age of 2.

After years of rumors and unsettling data, news of the planned evacuation made the people of Love Canal go from afraid to ballistic. They began organizing protest groups, the most visible of which was the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) led by a local housewife named Lois Gibbs. Another organization, the Concerned Love Canal Renters Association (CLCRA) is less well-remembered. It was run by a community activist named Elene Thornton, and consisted mostly of African American residents from a nearby federal housing project. Television crews and reporters, enchanted with the idea of white housewives turned activists, largely wrote the CLCRA out of their coverage of Love Canal.

What’s also forgotten is just how vicious the situation was. At one point, residents burned effigies of Jimmy, Rosalynn, and Amy Carter (who was 10 years old at the time).

Jimmy Carter Effigy Love Canal
University of Buffalo

But it was Carter’s executive decisions that paid for people to move from Love Canal. In 1978, Carter approved emergency federal aid so that New York State could start buying the homes of the 236 families closest to the canal.

That didn’t appease the other 710 families that still had to live there. In May of 1980, the EPA announced that blood tests of 36 Love Canal residents revealed nearly a third “exhibited chromosome damage of an abnormal nature.” The LCHA responded by holding two EPA representatives hostage. When the police arrived, they found the entrance to the LCHA offices blocked by hundreds of angry suburbanites armed with two-by-fours. Gibbs called the press, and the White House. “We’ll keep them fed, we’ll keep them happy,” she said of her hostages.

The homeowners association released their hostages after five hours. Gibbs later recalled that one of them, Frank Nepal, was kind of into it. “He was telling us how he used to be involved in the Vietnam War protests,” Gibbs said. “So he thought it was kind of cool, being held hostage.”

Love Canal Bonnet Protest
University of Buffalo

New York and the federal government squabbled over buying out the remaining 710 families. A compromise was finally reached in October of 1980, with the federal government providing $7.5 million in grants and another $7.5 million in loans to the state so that it could begin buying homes immediately. The following spring, Love Canal was a ghost town.

Love Canal Old Man
University of Buffalo

The Love Canal experience also led Carter to create the Superfund program in 1980. That way, when another Love Canal happened (and there would be many drums of toxic waste unearthed in the following decades), there would be funds ready to pay for any cleanup and relocation.

Time has edited the story of Love Canal. The EPA rescinded the chromosome study in 1983, saying that it was poorly done. Gibbs’s two children, both sickly as children, grew up to be healthy adults. A long-term study carried out by the New York State Health Department found the health of former residents wasn’t that different from those of others living in Niagara County and throughout the state. Sure, they died more frequently of heart attacks, car crashes, suicide, and bladder and kidney cancer, but overall, their mortality rates fell within the average range for the area.

Former Love Canal residents continue to dispute this research. For one thing, residents who died of cancer before 1972, or moved away before 1978, were not counted in the state’s study. For another, why compare the health of Love Canal residents to another group that lived nearby? Why not make the control group people who lived in a community with no pollution at all?

The toxic waste filling Love Canal proved too big to move, so the canal was covered in clay and entombed instead. Or, as Gibbs said, it lived in “a gated community for chemicals.”

In the 1990s, some 200 homes at the outer edge of the evacuation zone were refurbished and renamed Black Creek Village. A few years later, residents of Black Creek Village began complaining of miscarriages and mysterious rashes. Not possible, replied an EPA spokesperson. The area around Love Canal was surrounded by monitoring wells and “the most sampled piece of property on the planet.” Any leak in the landfill would be detected. Because it’s so closely watched, the story goes, what was once the most dangerous suburb in America is today one of the safest.


Could climate-change warnings on gasoline pumps actually work?

Originally published at Grist.

Later this year, someone stopping to fuel up in North Vancouver will be the first customer to see the controversial warning labels. They’ll be wrapped around the gas pump handles. The exact wording isn’t settled yet, but here’s the gist of it: Every time you pump gas, you’re contributing to air pollution and climate change.

What will they look like? We don’t know that, either, but here’s one candidate considered by the city council that voted in the new warning-label law:

Gas Warning Label Caribou
Our Horizon

This label was developed by Robert Shirkey, a Toronto-based lawyer who has been obsessed with climate change for, as he put it, “as long as I can remember.” A few years ago, his grandfather told him to “do what you love,” then promptly died and left him with a small inheritance. Shirkey used the money to found Our Horizon, a nonprofit that functions as a one-stop shop for anyone curious about getting their local municipality to put climate change warning labels on gasoline pumps.

It might seem unfair to post labels at gas stations implying that individual drivers are guilty of nudging caribou closer to extinction. After all, lots of others are out there warming the troposphere: power plants, trucking, the military, you name it. Shirkey decided to focus on gas pump warning labels precisely because the responsibility for climate change is so diffuse. Unless you’re living some kind of Little House on the Prairie lifestyle, the energy that goes into heating your home and keeping you fed is invisible.

But the experience of fueling up is a real, gassy, in-your-face moment of personal responsibility. You can smell it. You have to pull levers to make it work. “There is nothing else,” Shirkey wrote, in an article for the amazingly named Municipal World magazine, “that currently connects us to the problems of climate change in such a direct way.”

Meanwhile, in West Vancouver, a teenager named Emily Kelsall heard Shirkey being interviewed on the radio on her way to school. In the same way that some sixteen-year-olds would travel from town to town for soccer matches, or to see punk shows at VFW halls, Kelsall began going from local city council to city council, proposing new legislation requiring gasoline warning labels.

The push to label gasoline pumps is also a reminder of just how much the movement to educate people about climate change has come to parallel the one to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. Tobacco campaigns started with a scientific argument (Doctors say: smoking is bad for you) before broadening into more advertising-inspired messages. When New York’s attorney general decided to investigate whether Exxon lied to the public or its investors about the risks of climate change, it recalled the decades of lawsuits brought against the four largest tobacco companies by the attorneys general of 46 states. When those cases were settled in 1996, tobacco companies had to pay the states money that went directly into funding anti-smoking advertising campaigns — particularly ones designed to stop teenagers from smoking in the first place.

Suing energy companies is going to be even harder than suing tobacco companies. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining to imagine what would happen if state attorneys general sued and won. There would be cheesy public service billboards in high schools about how uncool driving is compared to taking the bus. There would be television ads like this:

Right now, ads for energy companies are just part of the background noise of advertising that we all live with. They’re so familiar that we almost don’t see them anymore. But a few decades down the road, an advertisement glorifying wanton gasoline use could look as retro as these ads do today:

cigarette babies ad
Grist / Stanford School of Medicine

America used to be the world leader of warning labels. In 1966, it became the first country to force cigarette companies to print a warning from the surgeon general on every pack of smokes. They ran the gamut from “WARNING: Cigarettes are addictive,” to “WARNING: Tobacco smoke can harm your children.”

In 1966, 43 percent of Americans smoked. Fifty years later, that percentage has fallen to 18. Labels can’t claim all the credit, but the research is clear — warning labels work. Research also shows that warning labels are especially effective when they’re very large and combine pictures along with words, especially if those pictures are disgusting. That explains why it’s hard to buy a cigarette in many other countries without seeing a revolting picture of advanced mouth cancer. Beginning in 2012, cigarette packs sold in the United States were supposed to carry those picture warnings, too, but their rollout was blocked by a lawsuit from several cigarette companies.

The threat of lawsuits is part of the reason why gasoline warning labels have been slow to catch on. Countries that mandate large and graphic cigarette labels have been sued not only for violating intellectual property laws but also for violating international trade agreements. Both Berkeley and San Francisco have openly considered gasoline warning labels, only to find out they would be sued by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). Berkeley’s proposal inspired a stern editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle by WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd.

“It is, of course, ironic,” Reheis-Boyd wrote, “that the city of Berkeley — birthplace of the Free Speech Movement 50 years ago — would even consider an ordinance that so clearly treads upon the free speech rights of the men and women who own and operate service stations within its borders.”

The last time I was pumping gas, I looked up and saw that some enterprising person had clipped these ads to the fuel hoses:


It made me think of something I had learned a long time ago. People don’t actually like pumping gas. Gas companies know this and have designed their pumps to look like ATM machines on the grounds that people like getting money from ATM machines more than they like paying for gas. People don’t like schlepping kids everywhere in cars either, any more than the kids like to be schlepped. In my experience as an actual child who spent long hours in the backseat of a Ford Taurus, a realistic photo would involve a lot more sulking.

So, in the same way that beer distributors drop off sexy bikini lady posters to make sure that everyone at the bar remembers how much fun beer is, energy companies feel compelled to push the joys of gasoline at gas pumps and on billboards around the world. It’s clear why they would push back against a warning label with everything they’ve got. The cognitive dissonance of a picture of happy kids hanging from the fuel line and a picture of a kid with an inhaler glued to the gas pump would be a bit much — in the same way that a baby congratulating mom and dad for their taste in cigarettes is impossible once you have a label right there on the cigarette pack telling you that smoke destroys their tiny lungs.

There is a precedent in the U.S. for using art to discourage people from using quite so much gas. During World War II, the government rationed gasoline, set the country’s speed limit at 35 mph, and banned automobile racing. Special courts were set up to deal with people who drove “for pleasure.” If they were found guilty, their gasoline rations taken away. The Office of Price Administration, which was in charge of gas rationing, embarked on an advertising campaign to make conservation seem patriotic.

Doubling up on car travel


Out of all the conservation propaganda released during this period, “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler” has had the most staying power. It’s been reworked so often that it’s acquired meme status.

To someone who has spent an awful lot of time looking at warning labels, the surprising thing is just how joyful old-fashioned conservation posters can be.


When you scare people, you get their attention. But that’s not the only way. A meta-analysis of research into fear and behavior change found that, even more than feeling scared, what motivated people to change was the feeling that they could do something, that their actions had some power in the world.

Putting labels on gasoline pumps isn’t going to fix climate change by itself, any more than cigarette labels fixed smoking. Another study found that simply raising the cost of cigarettes had a major effect, as did changing social norms that restricted people’s ability to light up in bars, restaurants, and other places that used to be clouded with smoke.

In other words, attempts to change behavior should also be accompanied by alternatives that make that change seem appealing and tangible. Can’t stop driving because most of this country’s infrastructure makes driving a necessity? Carpool, drive efficiently, and make sure to show up and vote for that light rail or Bus Rapid Transit project. When gasoline labels arrive — and they will — it’s important that they offer hope along with a dose of fear.


The Messy Tale of the Dog Poop Lamp

Originally published at Grist.

Matthew Mazzotta was in Vermont, visiting his friend Guy Roberts. At some point, as you do, he and the friend got onto the subject of what the hell his friend was doing in Vermont.

“I’m working on a scalable methane digester with parts that clip together and scale up depending on how many cows you have,” said Guy. “It makes free energy.”

“That’s impossible,” said Mazzotta.

“No it’s not,” said Guy. “The little microbes in the manure breathe out methane. It’s naturally occurring.”

Both parts of this conversation are being acted out for me by Mazzotta, while we both sit at the studio he’s working out of during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, Calif. It was a moment that set Mazzotta on a fateful course.

“It wasn’t until further down the road that I realized that it had this environmental element to it — that if you burn methane it separates from the carbon dioxide and turns into water,” he said. “So basically it came down to free energy and it was good for the environment. I was shocked. It could not be so.”

Mazzotta_Park_Spark_Diagram2Here’s how I first heard of Mazzotta: In 2010, I was working as a city reporter in San Francisco. My editor assigned me to write a few stories about poop in the city. It didn’t so much matter what I wrote about it, as long as I wrote something. It was, she was convinced, reliable traffic bait — like murder, or parking.

So I began looking into this poop and the city beat. I researched people pooping on the sidewalk. (Only illegal since 2002!) I interviewed an idealistic maker of public composting toilets. And I found a great poop mystery: a plan, circa 2006, to collect dog waste at city parks and convert it into energy, that first was much-hyped, and then vanished.

The concept raised an important question: For centuries, cities have dealt with poop by asking “How do we get this waste safely AWAY from our city as far and as quickly as possible?” While the underpinnings of this idea have been called into question in this age of sustainability and energy awareness, there’s been precious little actual experience on the ground with alternatives.

This was a project that seemed tailor-made to assuage the collective guilt of San Francisco — a city notorious for having more dogs than children, a city where 3.8 percent of residential trash collection falls under the category of “animal waste,” and a city that likes to do weird things and then brag about them later. Also: a city with a goal of producing zero waste by 2020.

But it never happened. Nada. It was never formally canceled. It just faded until it was gone, like so many California dreams.

Then I heard something else: The same project had been attempted on the East Coast, in Cambridge, Mass., and there, it actually happened. The secret? Mazzotta pitched it, not as an environmental improvement, or an expression of civic virtue, but as an art project. Maybe art could be the secret weapon that got America over its poop fears.

Matthew Mazzotta


At the time, Mazzotta was making art that encouraged people to hang out with each other in public spaces. He collaborated on a bicycle-powered bus project whose final form was part centipede, part longboat. He disguised a binocular-enabled people-watching station as a utility box, and built and hid an entire folding teahouse inside a loading dock (not well enough — the teahouse was eventually stolen).

Matthew Mazzotta

One day in 2009, walking down the street in Cambridge, where he was finishing a graduate degree in art at MIT, he passed a dog park surrounded by trash cans heaped with poop bags. He’d just been in India on a research trip; in the houses he’d seen there, residents cooked on burners powered by the methane generated by cow dung. So at that moment, to him, the trash cans weren’t just trash cans — they were a waste of something that could be incredibly useful.

Mazzotta did some research, found an article about San Francisco’s dog-waste power plan, and got in touch with Will Brinton, an environmental scientist who had consulted on the project. Brinton told him why the project had never been built: too much red tape. Who was going to maintain it? If it produced energy, did it need to be classified as a business? “The idea is there,” Brinton told Mazzota. “But no one can do it.” Also, there was no glory in it, science-wise — no possibility for publication or greater renown. The technology was too simple.

“I want to do it as an art project,” Mazzotta said.

“That might just work,” said Brinton.


The two met up in Maine and began working on a prototype — a simple metal drum with a lamp attached via a gas valve. They filled it with manure from a nearby cow pasture and left it overnight for the methane to build up.

When Mazzotta came back the next morning, the gas pressure had busted the drum open. They glued the contraption back together. The next time he went out to light the lamp, it worked. “I’m showing it to everybody,” Mazzotta recalls thinking. “You see that light in the field? That’s cow shit!”

Mazzotta went to Cambridge Park & Recreation to talk permits. Nice idea, said Park & Rec. But no way. Playing with methane was the kind of thing people should do on the farm — not in the big city. Mazzotta explained that the whole point was to build a methane digester in the city, where there were dogs. Maybe, said Park & Rec.

Park & Rec wasn’t the only agency that needed to be won over. There was the EPA. The fire department. The Open Space Committee. Building permits. A month went by. Then another month. Then seven months. He gave the project a cute name (“Park Spark,” after the lamppost). He was going from agency to agency and department to department, making his pitch, learning to speak the language of the engineer to the engineers, and the language of the city planner to the city planners, and bringing in Brinton to talk science when he needed a scientist.

Mazzotta began to feel like something, and he realized what it was: He was acting like a businessman.

Matthew Mazzotta

A decade earlier, this would have been inconceivable to him. In the ’90s, as part of an Atlanta-based veganer-than-thou hardcore scene, Mazzotta’s encounters with authority came mostly in the form of protests over the most protest-y injustices of the ’90s: Animal rights. The environment. Zapatistas. “I yelled and yelled and yelled,” he recalls. “A lot of that was about the environment. But it was also about why weren’t things more beautiful.”

Many things about being in the hardcore punk scene were great, especially the music. But as Mazzotta grew out of his undergraduate years, certain cultural practices that came with the scene began to wear on him: “All we were talking about was being vegan and being straightedge. Did you buy leather shoes? If you buy leather shoes at a thrift store, is that OK because they’re used, or bad because you’re endorsing the wearing of leather? So you eat tofu. The guy who is driving the tofu to you, what did he eat for lunch? Did the truck kill any insects on its way to deliver the tofu to you? At the end of the day, nothing is vegan. Because to get it to you, people had to do all of this crazy shit that is killing the environment.”

In 1999, Mazzotta got accepted into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At that point, he had everything that a person in the hardcore scene needed to be fulfilled — namely, friends and a van. But as he prepared to move, he had a realization: “I am going to where people don’t know me. I am going to see why people do other things. I just want to see more.”

And now here he was, meeting with city functionaries about dog park art, talking about minutiae. Would the digester smell? (Because it was burning off methane, it would actually reduce dog park odor.) Would the bags used to pick up dog shit clog up the inside of the container? (Only if they weren’t compostable which, admittedly, most of them weren’t. Using newspaper would work — but since picking up poop with newspaper was a lost art, Mazzotta had negotiated a supply of legit compostable bags for the park itself.) Would it blow up? (With a spark arrestor, it was about as likely to explode as your car.) And what to do with the energy? Mazzotta had big dreams — he could power a public tea-kettle, or a communal popcorn popper. Everything was vetoed.

Matthew Mazzotta

So Mazzotta went to the Netherlands. He built a digester there, in a cow pasture, and built a teahouse and had it covered in the same reeds used to roof local houses. The goal was to make it look like a part of the landscape, but more than a few people thought it made it look like a giant coconut.

Matthew Mazzotta

Everything worked. Nothing exploded. Mazzotta returned to the U.S. with pictures of happy Dutch people foraging for tea ingredients by the side of the road and drinking their manure-heated tea, and he showed them to the last few Cambridge holdouts. See? See these happy Dutch people? He got the last permit he needed. He could only do it as a temporary project — but he could do it.

He began building the installation at MIT, trying to design its two tanks for every terrible thing that someone might try to do to them. He found an old crank at an antique shop and attached it to the outside, in the hopes of enticing visitors to stir up the contents of the digester and keep it aerated. A friend designed simple decals to explain the process. They pre-loaded the tanks with cow manure donated by a farm outside of town, left it sealed for a while, and then went to light the lamp. Nothing.

Matthew Mazzotta

Mazzotta panicked and ran over to Harvard, looking for help. Your digester is pickled, a researcher from Harvard explained. Too acidic. Add some baking soda. He went back and did that. The lamppost lit up. Victory.

Matthew Mazzotta

The next day, he got a phone call. “This is Kyle,” said a voice on the other line. “From the BBC.” Then CNN called. And Wired. Mazzotta did about 75 interviews in about two weeks. Friends began to get in touch with him from around the world, saying they’d seen him on television in the strangest contexts.

He got invited onto conservative talk radio. There, when he began talking about methane and climate change, the host stopped him. “You know that climate change is a hoax,” the host said. Mazzotta paused. “They want me to fight,” he thought. “I’m not going to fight about this. I’m beyond that.” The whole point of the project was to get people who would never think about climate change to think about waste and nature.

No one threw anything crazy into the digester. People loved turning the crank outside the tank so much that when Mazzotta showed up occasionally to check in on the project, there was no need to even stir it. News crews would show up and film people walking their dogs and tossing poop into the tank. While city waste haulers refused to even touch the tank, Mazzotta found a company that handled zoo waste to periodically stop by and prevent any overflow.

When the time came to take out the digester, he says, the city had second thoughts — maybe it should be permanent. But it was too late. Mazzotta was moving to Korea; he’d only built it as a temporary installation, per their request. He was done with the project.

Mazzotta posted as much information about Park Spark as he could online, so that anyone else could build their own. Five years later, he still gets an email a week about it, but as of yet, he doesn’t know of anyone who has made their own version. Instead, people tend to pick up his plans, use them to pull down grants for local community improvements or art projects, run through the money, and then never do anything.

Who are these people? Song-and-dance men, using a once-viral idea to get a quick buck? Idealists who just can’t figure out how to get through seven months of city meetings? Maybe Mazotta’s time in the hardcore scene left him uniquely equipped, as an artist, to endure that kind of scrutiny. Maybe it’s just too excruciating for anyone else.

“I’m glad I got out of this thing,” Mazzotta said. If he’d stayed, as he put it, “with the tanks and the insurances,” he wouldn’t have time to do anything else.

For example: He never did the analysis on whether or not Park Spark actually saved any energy. After all the energy that went into making the tank, and the steel that went into the tank, how long would it take for Park Spark to produce as much energy as had gone into it?

The good thing about an art project was that every time someone asked you what you were doing, you could just say “art.” You didn’t have to think about performance metrics.

After Park Spark, Mazzotta’s art became very context-specific. Park Spark could have been installed anywhere with a dog park. The new projects are more wrapped up in the story of the place where they’re built. He turned an abandoned house in York, Ala., into an auditorium. It could be considered an environmental project (reclaimed wood, etc.), but he found that he had more interesting conversations with people when he didn’t describe it that way.

The history of cities and shit (and I’m talking about literal shit here, that thing we all excrete and then have to figure out how to get rid of) is an amazing one. For example: In 1933, a “night soil war” erupted in Beijing when the city’s new mayor tried to break up the monopoly that emptied and sold the contents of the city’s public toilets. During the Cultural Revolution, peasants from the countryside would come into the city to raid public toilets to use as fertilizer.

Before the arrival of chemical fertilizer and cheap energy, shit was … well … useful. Historians believe that the Assyrians used the methane that offgasses from it to heat their bathwater. In 1895, streetlights in Exeter, England, ran off of the same thing generated by a local sewage treatment plant.

So Mazzotta’s project wasn’t that far out there, even by the standards of today. Today, biogas operations are found out in the countryside — particularly out in the countryside in other countries. San Francisco may never have actualized its pet dropping dreams, but Sunset Scavenger, the city’s waste hauling company, won a prize for capturing the gas coming off of yard trimmings and food waste and using it to power its dump trucks (with the equivalent of about 120,000 gallons of diesel fuel). A project like this is way more ambitious — and way more efficient — than the long-forgotten dog park plan. The dogs of San Francisco would have to work pretty hard to compete with all the squishy old apples, rotten chard, and expired yogurt that its residents generate.

Still, the beauty of a project like Park Spark was that it bestowed a sense that by using it, you were doing something virtuous, and at very little cost to yourself. It may feel like a jerk move, environmentally, to throw your dog’s poop in a trash bin, but I doubt many San Franciscans are following the advice that I got, so many years ago, from a Recology spokesperson: Just bring dog poop inside and flush it down the toilet. (Please join me in being amazed that there is a special outdoors toilet available on the market for this very purpose.)

But let’s stop being practical for a moment, because this is a story about an art project, after all. Let’s get futuristic. In the same way that streetcars and bicycles and city chickens are making a comeback, could city poop do the same? Is there a plausible future where I would come back to my apartment to find glossy mailers from energy startups, stuffed in between all the flyers from Washio and Munchery, looking to lock up the rights to the contents of my building’s toilets?

Mazzotta’s project proved one thing: A city biogas project can be wildly popular. But it also proved something else: The real future belongs not to those with the best ideas, or those with the most money, but to those who can sit through seven months of meetings and not falter. Let’s remember that, as we boldly go into whatever future we are fighting for.


The Story Behind One Solar Robot

I am peering through the glass window of a refrigerator-sized machine. The machine is named Endurance, if you go by the printing on its side, or Lucy, if you go by what Leila Madrone calls it. I’m watching some plastic get tortured.

It’s going through the equivalent of 100 years of life in a harsh desert climate: It’s been exposed to extreme heat and cold, and UV radiation. It’s been sandblasted. It’s been shaken around a whole lot. It suffers, because it needs to last 30 years without anyone having to fix it. Better for it to fail now, in the lab, than later, at a solar installation in some far-flung desert.

The building, in the former industrial sector of San Francisco’s Mission District, is older than it looks: it was used to make custom mining equipment during California’s silver rush in the early 1900s. Ideally, the plastic would last as long as this building. Maybe it will. If you have a problem with plastic, Madrone tells me while we peer through the glass, if you have a problem with the way that it sticks around in the environment, you just need to use it for what it’s good for — use it for something that’s supposed to last forever.

This plastic is part of the answer to a question that Madrone found herself asking back in 2008. By that point, she had built a lot of cool robots. Her thesis in electrical engineering at MIT was a set of motorized laser guides to help people play the theremin. After years of designing precision robots for biotech, she had fulfilled the life goal of her 7-year-old self and worked with NASA — leading an engineering team working on the Gigapan, a commercial version of the robot that lived on the Mars Rover and took panoramic shots of the places it visited. But Madrone still wondered: What was the most useful robot she could build?


Madrone settled on solar trackers — mechanical systems that move solar panels in order to help them follow the path of the sun. The concept isn’t new; solar-tech historian John Perlin found a description of a simple solar tracker dated 1699. (It was a slab that grapevines grew along the side of, that could be tilted throughout the day with a series of pegs and tracks to maximize sunlight.) Plants had come up with the concept even earlier.

But for someone with Madrone’s skills in automation and robotics, solar tracking looked like the right problem: It took a proven renewable technology and made it even better. Trackers in general could already boost the energy production of a solar panel by 20 percent or more. With the right breakthroughs, they could be the thing that tipped the balance and made solar the lowest-cost energy source out there.

Madrone read everything she could find about solar — in academic journals,  on the internet. She interviewed people working in the field. She began working for a solar startup called GreenVolts, which was developing equipment for concentrated solar: small, high-tech power plants whose modest footprints made it easier for them to locate near cities. GreenVolts’ technology was far out; the arrays looked sort of like a field of robotic flowers, with panels that branched out from a central column like petals. The panels, and the trunk, were actually a huge precision robot that could track and concentrate sunlight much more efficiently than old-school photovoltaic solar.


It was really cool. It also came with a lot of bells and whistles — it was, as one business reporter put it, “bling-heavy.”

In 2008, the price of ordinary, non-high tech photovoltaic solar panels began to fall, sharply. It kept on falling. This was partly due to the recession, partly due to (successful) efforts by Chinese solar companies to seize the day and drive their competitors around the world out of business by selling photovoltaic panels at below cost. There was no bling that could outcompete that kind of bargain, especially when the bargain was a proven technology that everyone in the industry knew how to install and maintain.

GreenVolts was toast, though it would take a few more years to figure that out, and Madrone was disillusioned. She left the company and spent five months traveling through Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Mexico. She visited islands where the only power source was expensive and dirty generators, and cities like Kathmandu, where the electrical grid was so non-functional that blackouts were a daily occurrence. The more that she saw, the more she became convinced that any solar technology that would have an impact needed to be so cheap and easy to manufacture that it could be deployed anywhere.

When she returned, Madrone began collaborating with an old friend at MIT, Saul Griffith. Griffith was the sort of inventor who came up with new devices and companies at the same clip that other people might, say, take out the trash, or do the nightly dishes (he’s best known for founding Instructables). At that time, he found himself increasingly preoccupied with climate change — and the problem of inventing tools to fight climate change that people actually used.

Among the projects he worked on: a road that is also a solar panel (turns out you expend more energy building it than you ever get back from using it). A wind-energy device called Makani Power, which is like the lovechild of a windmill and a kite (bought by Google X in 2012, where it has remained perpetually in the testing stage ever since). A cargo-hauling tricycle with electrical pedal assist (cool, but the battery alone costs $1,000, so not practical to bring to market). A website called WattzOn that catalogues tools to help people, cities, and utilities reduce their personal energy consumption (popular with a geeky subset of people, cities, and utilities interested in doing this, but otherwise under the radar).

Griffith had recently founded Otherlab, a research and development company that Madrone describes as part startup, part academic lab. Griffith and another Otherlab co-founder, James McBride, had also written a concept paper two years earlier, hypothesizing that mass-manufactured, plastic parts could dramatically bring down the cost of a solar tracker. Madrone moved into Otherlab and started building prototypes in a corner of the building.

Concentrated solar power (CSP) was still desperate for good trackers, so Madrone and Griffith started a new company — Sunfolding — and decided their niche would be designing a solar tracker that could work with any concentrated solar project. “We started with concentrated solar, thinking if we can do this, we can do anything,” says Madrone. CSP trackers were the hardest to build; they needed to be extremely precise while operating in harsh conditions.

What they came up with was a collection of small, inexpensive mirrors that tilted using pneumatic pressure. The whole setup had much less wind drag and fewer moving parts than a traditional steel-and-glass heliostat. In November 2012, the project won $2.6 million from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a government agency designed to fund risky but interesting energy technology, in the tradition of the Pentagon’s DARPA.

But the price of photovoltaic solar continued to fall, which made even believers in concentrated solar (which relies on an entirely different technology) balk at building new $3 billion plants. And the technology kept changing, making investors risk-shy: No one wanted to install a huge solar array, only to have to rip it out and start over a few years later because the technology didn’t work out. “There’s a lot of really neat innovations you can come up with related to energy,” says Madrone, “but they’re not necessarily what the industry needs or wants.”

What the industry needs and wants, Madrone and her colleagues hope, is huffing pneumatically a few feet away from where I’m sitting to interview Madrone, in an empty workshop on the third floor of Sunfolding HQ. It’s just around the block from Otherlab HQ, where the plastic is being tortured. This building, also old, was erected by a German-American pipe organ company that’s almost as old as the silver mining equipment company, but that proved much more long-lived. Schoenstein & Co., the pipe organ manufacturer, outgrew the space a few years ago and moved its operations to Benicia, Calif. Outside the door to the workshop is a huge room where, from 1928 until 2004, pipe organs were built. The list of each organ made on site, and its destination, still hangs from one wall.

Christopher Michel

Today, heavy-duty engineering texts like Uhlig’s Corrosion Handbook (third edition) are scattered around the upstairs workshop. Under normal circumstances, the ping pong-table-sized solar panel in the corner of the workshop would not be moving this fast, but right now it is rapidly tilting, fast-forwarding its way through a sequence of pre-programmed days. One of the things Madrone and Griffith found is that it’s easier to program a field of solar panels with pre-existing algorithms describing the sun’s movements than it is to fuss with a sensor that follows the path of the sun in real time — but would also be one more part that could break.

Standard-issue solar tracking devices for PV are designed, in Madrone’s words, “the way you would expect an industrial machine to look like.” They’re made of motors and gear boxes and bearings, which have a lot of surfaces that rub against each other and wear out. They have to be assembled by hand in a factory somewhere. The panels are moved by a torque tube that runs along the length of 20 or 40 solar panels, so that it can move all the panels at once when it rotates. This is efficient, and doesn’t use much energy, but has the unintended effect of forcing every large-scale solar installation that wants to use tracking to become a giant, flat rectangle — no matter how many nice, oddly slanted or shaped spots are nearby.

Sunfolding’s approach is different. The only hardware that moves Madrone and Griffith’s test panel is a set of chunky, accordion-pleated tubes, about the size of a liter bottle of soda. They are linked via a series of tubes to an air compressor off to the side, and as air moves in and out of the tubes, they expand and contract, and the panel tilts. The tubes are made out of black automotive plastic; as they expand and contract, the effect is part inchworm, part Muppet.

I ask Madrone if, compared to all the other robots she’s built, this one might not be just a little boring. “I’m glad that you see it’s a robot,” she says. “Because it runs autonomous systems. It runs presumably for decades without anyone telling it what to do. It responds to the sun. If there’s bad weather it does something to protect itself. For all intents and purposes, it is a robot.

“It’s not a fast-moving robot. It doesn’t move any faster than the sun moves. But a lot of the things you have to solve for this tracking system are really interesting problems. There are things we are doing with our controls that no one else can do.

“It’s really easy to build something that works for a day,” Madrone adds. “It’s a whole other piece of work to build something that can go for a week. Every time you increase that without someone coming in and poking it and replacing things, it becomes harder and harder.”

It has not escaped Madrone’s attention that when she graduated, many of her fellow engineering students at MIT worked on hardware projects. Now, more and more of them work on software. Even with the much-hyped “internet of things,” and the tsunami of venture capital flowing through the Bay Area, the field for hardware projects is small. Companies that can invent new hardware and actually bring it all the way to market are rare. Venture capitalists may come in at the late stages of a product’s development, but they aren’t going to fund research and development for hardware when software, immaterial and scalable, is so much more tempting.

Only five years passed between Madrone’s decision to build a cheap way to move solar panels around and her actually releasing a product to market. That’s an eternity in internet years, but a pretty short one for hardware that is supposed to make it to 2045 before it needs repairing.

Getting to this point took more than building a better mousetrap. It took learning the ins and outs of an industry that was changing fast, yet skittish about changing any further. It meant leaving cool ideas by the wayside if they interfered with cost and reliability. It meant building something most individuals will never see in action (since building codes have a hard enough time permitting rooftop solar that stays perfectly still).   It meant signing on to a funding mechanism that involved spending a long, eight-hour day every three months talking technology and strategy with a government agency, ARPA-E, that was both a champion and an enforcer. (Madrone sees this as a good thing: “A lot of startups don’t have that experience where they have someone scrutinizing them and making sure they are doing everything technically correctly.”)

The tech industry, as a whole, is prone to big visions and big ideas — with good reason, since big ideas are the language of venture capital. That’s not the language that Madrone speaks.

“We have to get away from this hero mentality,” she says, as we leave the 100-year-old pipe organ factory and step out into the sunshine. “We don’t need someone to create a magical box that means we can do whatever we want all the time and use all the energy we want. We need to get really smart about our energy use and really smart about how we create energy.

“The only way we can do that is by creating an ecosystem where there are a lot of ideas working together. And we need to start valuing that kind of community of ideas instead of the one hero that is going to save us all. ”


Meet the YIMBYS

Originally published at Grist.

The first time I heard of Sonja Trauss, she was mobilizing San Franciscans to support new apartment construction. This was not a campaign that went over well in the Mission District, a formerly working-class neighborhood that was in the middle of a full-on freakout over how many people seemed to want to build luxury condos there. One night, when I was walking down 24th Street, I saw that someone had taped up fliers to telephone poles with pictures of Trauss on them. Her eyes had been whited out and replaced by dollar signs.

Based on this backstory, I assumed Trauss must be one of the numerous young real estate professionals who come to the Bay Area to seek their fortunes. I was surprised, when we met up last week, to realize that she actually belongs to a species I’d thought almost extinct in the Bay Area: the bona fide, deeply eccentric city-government nerd. Even stranger, Trauss had just turned around and done something that seemed to delight even her more vociferous opponents — she was trying to sue a suburban municipality to build more affordable housing.

Here is how Trauss’s thinking goes: We need more housing units, and the market-rate units we build now will become tomorrow’s middle-income apartments. Her theory is based on her experience working for a neighborhood advisory committee in a rapidly gentrifying part of Philadelphia right before the mid-2000s housing bubble burst. “When the market crashed,” Trauss told me, “all those projects we had approved went on sale for a third of the price they would have, while all the projects we gummed up were never built. We lost the opportunity to create more units.”

Trauss’s enthusiasm for building has brought out the critics. They say that, at best, she just doesn’t know her local history (when the mid-2000s housing bubble burst, the Mission was relatively unaffected); at worst, she’s a tool of the real estate lobby, hoping for a payout.

Neither view could be easily squared with Trauss’s latest move — organizing a lawsuit against the East Bay suburb of Lafayette, arguing that the city has wrongly blocked builders from putting up new housing. The lawsuit would be based on the 1982 Housing Accountability Act — an obscure California law intended to help affordable housing projects from having to compromise on density in order to win approval from local planning commissions. In 2011, a court ruled that the act applied to all housing, not just affordable housing. In 2014, a developer in the Mission used the act to fend off an effort to scale down a 12-unit apartment building that they had been trying to build for years on the site of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But Trauss’s new effort seems to be unprecedented — it would be the first time that actual people, rather than developers, were using the law. And if her campaign succeeds, the implications could be huge. Suburbs like Lafayette are historically allergic to allowing more housing density, yet denser communities, many urban environmentalists believe, are the key to kicking our climate-wrecking carbon habit. Trauss’s suit could upend the tidy universe of California suburbia: Google employees living in San Francisco and commuting down the peninsula by tech bus could potentially could sue Mountain View for its refusal to approve three-quarters of the proposed housing around the Google campus. Speculators could ride BART and Caltrain all over the Bay Area, looking for locations around transit hubs where community organizations had blocked development.

Here’s how Trauss came to Lafayette: In August, she read a news article about the well-to-do suburb located east of San Francisco, over the hills from Oakland. Average income in Lafayette is about $130,000 — double the state average. It has an excellent school system and its own BART stop, and, like many similar communities, is determined to stay suburban. The Bay Area may have acquired 270,000 new residents in the last five years, but that doesn’t mean Lafayette is working to make room for them.

In 2010, Lafayette tried to rezone a Christmas tree lot that had been zoned for apartments in the 1940s, down from 35 units per acre to one home per five acres. The rezoning never went through. Then in 2011, a developer came up with a plan to build 315 apartments on the land (about 15 units per acre). The plan was to rent the finished units out, starting at $1,500 per month for a one bedroom — a price that, by Bay Area standards for new construction, was fairly modest, especially for an area with a good school district.

Neighborhood backlash was swift: “This development project will significantly impact traffic, threaten the safety of children crossing the street on their way to school, and decrease property values of hundreds of homes,” one petition read. The city refused to approve the project. The developer threatened to sue Lafayette under the Housing Accountability Act, but backed down when Lafayette offered to buy half of the land and turn it into a 10-acre city park. The developer drew up plans to build 44 more expensive single-family detached homes on the property instead.

But because of a quirk in the Housing Accountability Act, the developer wasn’t the only person who could sue Lafayette. Any person who could make a case that they would have lived in one of those 315 apartments, had they been built, could sue the City of Lafayette for standing in their way.

Right now, Trauss has a legal team and 15 plaintiffs lined up. She’s looking for more. The group also plans to host a panel discussion at the Lafayette Public Library titled: “Why are we suing you?”

Trauss has been obsessed with local politics since the days when she started writing the newsletter for her neighborhood organization in Philadelphia. She can rattle off the permit history of every major housing development that has gone up in the Bay Area in the last three years. “When we’re all there at a deep-level city meeting all night,” says Trauss, “I feel like I have more in common with the other people at the meeting than with anyone not at the meeting, even if we’re on opposite sides of an issue, because we’re all the type of people who think this is a good way for us to spend our lives.”

When Trauss moved to the San Francisco Bay Area four years ago, she first lived in El Cerrito with a relative whom she helped get through chemo. (“It’s a country club model moving here,” she said. “Either you have to pay a huge up-front fee, or you need to know someone.”) She found work quickly, teaching math at a private high school. But finding a place to live was an ordeal.

“I was just sick of ranting with my friends about how hard it is to find a place,” she says. “My four friends and I could go to the Planning Commission every Thursday and make our same speeches that we make at the bar about how we need to build more, build faster, build everything someone wants to build — and we might actually do some good. Local politics is where it’s at. People say ‘Oh, I’m so disconnected from politics. Nothing I say or do matters.’ That’s only because they’re paying attention to national politics. Local politics? You can take it over. If you’re bored with going to the bar every night and getting drunk, you can just take over your town. If you feel like it.”

Trauss and her friends decided to call themselves the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation — or, for short, SFBARF. The acronym was deliberate; Trauss’s roommate insisted that you couldn’t buy branding like BARF, and no one would ever confuse them with anyone else. (The current lawsuit is organized under a new, less creatively acronymable name: the California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund.)

The ultimate goal is not to torment Lafayette so much as to fire a warning shot across the bow of all the Bay Area suburbs who have failed to take on their share of new residents. “I talked to Sam Altman, the head of Y Combinator,” Trauss says. “He told me that Y Combinator alone creates 10,000 new jobs a year in the Bay Area. That means we need 5,000 new homes. At least.”

That said, Lafayette Terraces, the 315-unit complex that inspired the lawsuit, is far from a poster child for smart growth. Those 315 apartments were going to come with over 500 parking spaces, made necessary because the development is a nearly 40-minute walk away from the Lafayette BART station. A high density building’s environmental value vanishes if the people who live densely still drive everywhere. Many of the things that Lafayette residents objected to about the project — increased pollution from traffic near the complex, in particular — made sense.

That’s the argument that the mayor of Lafayette — attorney and former Ecology Law Review editor Brandt Andersson — made when he debated SFBARF member Brian Hanlon on television station KTVU. Andersson felt SFBARF’s pain, he said. He himself had a kid in his 20s who was still living in the home. But in its enthusiasm to find a test case, Andersson argued, the group had ignored the specifics of Lafayette as a city.

For one thing, since the city had never formally turned down the development, SFBARF didn’t have much of a case. For another thing, Lafayette had drawn up a plan, made three years ago, to keep multi-unit housing downtown, near the BART station. “We don’t want high-rises,” Andersson said — the plan called for a maximum of three stories in height, and 35 units per acre. But over the last few years the city had approved several apartment complexes downtown, and had optioned a city-owned parking lot to a developer to build 24 units of workforce housing.

All fine and good, said Hanlon, but still not enough — between 2007 and 2013 Lafayette had only signed off on permits for 10 percent of the amount of low-income and moderate-income housing that the Association of Bay Area Governments recommended built to keep up with population increase in the area. (Overall, though, Lafayette built 65 percent of the recommended number of units, which is a higher percentage than San Francisco.)

Trauss objects to Andersson’s characterization of the development as too far out of town. An ordinary person could walk the 1.7 miles to downtown, she responded, and a not very in-shape person could bike. Plus, she adds, “It’s almost always true that new development doesn’t have the transportation infrastructure (this includes walking friendly roads, not just buses and whatnot) it needs at the time it’s developed. That’s because we don’t build transportation (or really do anything) unless there are people asking for it. So if we let ‘not enough transportation’ be a reason to not build (and often we do), almost nothing will get built.”

That said, this case has always been about something bigger than Lafayette. “It’s not just a lawsuit,” says Trauss. “It’s a political exercise. Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don’t have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they’re morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that’s too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced.”

“It’s easy to see the problem when you’re tearing down someone’s home. But when you’re not building, it’s hard to see whose home it is.”


Environment, Science

How FEMA’s Toxic Katrina Trailers Made it to an Oil Boomtown

As soon as Nick Shapiro turned into the parking lot of the Tumbleweed Inn in Alexander, N.D., he recognized the trailers. They were off-white, boxy, almost cartoonish, and unadorned with any of the frills — racing stripes, awnings, window treatments — that a manufacturer would typically add to set a trailer apart on a display lot.

Nick Shapiro

But these trailers had never seen a display lot. Shapiro had first seen them when he was living in New Orleans in 2010, doing fieldwork for his Oxford University PhD. In New Orleans, everyone knew what they were, and the city was desperate to get rid of them. They had been built fast, and not to last. The fact that some people were still living in them because they had never gotten enough money to rebuild their homes, or had run afoul of unethical contractors, was just an unwanted reminder of how far the city still had to go to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

But in the oil fields of Alexander, where Shapiro found them, people had, at best, only a dim memory of hearing something bad about the trailers on the late night news.

Only one person in the improvised trailer park near the Tumbleweed Inn knew where the trailers were from. Now 19, he’d lived in one as a child, after his family’s home was destroyed when the levees around New Orleans broke in 2005. “It feels like home,” he said, looking around the park. “Not the landscape. The trailers. I’m used to it.”

Most of the people living in the trailer park were like him: men, young, drawn to North Dakota from all over the U.S. by the prospect of making $16-an-hour minimum in an oil boomtown. So what if they had to pay $1,200 a month to live in a trailer out on the prairie? They made it work. They slept in bunk beds, seven to a trailer, so that they could save as much as they could, and then get the hell out of there.

Get me 120,000 trailer homes, pronto!

The story of the trailers — which Grist has assembled from Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews, and the public record — goes like this: Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans levees broke, trailer companies were in touch with local officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), setting up contracts to provide housing for people whose homes were destroyed in the flood. Since 80 percent of New Orleans, plus a whole lot of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, had been flooded, the need for housing was overwhelming. At the time, there were about 14,000 trailers in lots around the country, waiting to be sold; FEMA needed 120,000. It ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of travel trailers and mobile homes from 60 different companies, and the production lines cranked into overdrive.

Still, a month after Katrina and Rita hit landfall, Louisiana had only managed to get 109 families into trailers. The alternatives were overcrowded shelters, or squatting in the wreckage of the flood.

As new trailers arrived, they brought hope: They were shiny and new, and most importantly, had never been buried under 12 feet of water. But when the people who were supposed to live in them opened the doors, many noted a strong chemical smell inside. Some thought it was OK: It smelled kind of like a new car in there! Others did not think it was OK, especially after they started to get nosebleeds and headaches, and began to have trouble breathing. Local pediatricians began to notice an epidemic of respiratory infections in children in the area — and all of them seemed to be living in FEMA trailers.

“After the storm, about half of the people I knew were in FEMA trailers,” said Sierra Club organizer Becky Gillette. “Some of them were fine. The smokers didn’t complain much. But I had a friend who would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air.” Gillette knew a fair amount about air pollution — she’d worked on social justice campaigns around the local oil refinery. The link between mobile homes and formaldehyde was well documented; the low ceilings and small size concentrated any fumes emanating from the particleboard they were built with.

Even after the National Institutes of Health declared formaldehyde to be a carcinogen, the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t bother to regulate levels of formaldehyde for travel trailers or motor homes, under the theory that they were only temporary lodging. Formaldehyde test kits were about $35 apiece, and they added up fast. Gillette ordered 32 of them — over $1,200 worth. When 30 of the 32 tested positive for high formaldehyde levels, she shared the information with FEMA — which, she said, did nothing. So Gillette got a grant from the Sierra Club to buy even more kits.

FEMA — or at least some parts of FEMA — did know that the trailers were dangerous, though that would not emerge until the congressional hearings on the issue in 2008. FEMA appears to have stopped testing trailers in early 2006, after a field agent discovered that one trailer, which was occupied by a couple expecting their second child, had formaldehyde levels at 75 times the recommended threshold for workplace safety. The couple was relocated, and management pushed back against further testing, even after a man was found dead in his trailer a few months later. “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK,” a FEMA lawyer named Patrick Preston advised on June 15, 2006. “Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

That same month, the Sierra Club announced that, out of 44 trailers tested with kits purchased from Gillette’s grant, 40 had dangerously high formaldehyde levels. Mary DeVany, an occupational safety consultant who worked with the Sierra Club on interpreting the results, theorized that the plywood that was used to build some of the trailers wasn’t heat-treated properly. Trailers built by three companies in particular — Pilgrim International, Coachman Industries, and Gulf Stream Coach — had the highest levels. Kevin Broom, a spokesperson for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, told reporters that trailer residents needed to open their windows.

Nick Shapiro

Used trailers, warning stickers, and the free market

FEMA ultimately succeeded in deploying 140,000 trailers up and down the ravaged Gulf Coast. Then it had to start figuring out what to do with them as people began to rebuild their lives and leave them behind. The agency had planned on getting rid of the trailers by selling them, possibly even to the people who were living in them, but that was no longer an option. In July of 2007, FEMA suspended sales of the trailers to the public, and in November, it announced plans to move as many residents as possible out of the trailers — partly, a FEMA spokesperson said, because of formaldehyde levels.

Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began running its own tests. It announced the results in early 2008: On average, the 519 trailers the CDC tested had five times the formaldehyde levels found in most modern homes, but a few were dramatically higher — about 40 times the recommended levels. The CDC’s then-director urged FEMA to relocate anyone still living in trailers, particularly children and the elderly, before summer, when heat would make the fumes even worse.

Even unoccupied, the trailers were costing nearly $130 million a year to store, according to federal records, but what to do with them had become a loaded question. Congressional hearings held in spring 2008 established that the trailers were unsafe. In February of 2009, the CDC started a $3.4 million pilot program designed to find people — especially children — who had lived in FEMA trailers and track the their health over time. And a massive class-action lawsuit filed by trailer residents against FEMA and the trailer manufacturers continued to work its way through the court system.

But on Jan. 1, 2010, a court injunction banning the sale of the trailers expired, and FEMA handed them off to the General Services Administration (GSA) to auction them off, for about 7 percent what FEMA had originally paid for them. The GSA made buyers sign an agreement promising not to sell them as housing, and it slapped stickers on them saying that they were not to be used for human habitation — just storage or recreation.

Observers were aghast. “What if Toyota ordered a recall, then simply put a sticker on its vehicles saying they were unfit to drive before reselling them?” said Becky Gillette. In late 2008, FEMA had quietly sold about a thousand Katrina trailers and mobile homes as scrap; six months later, they were spotted in mobile home parks in Missouri and Georgia. What was to stop the same thing from happening over and over again — stickers or no stickers?

Nick Shapiro

As it turned out, nothing. FEMA trailers began to turn up everywhere, particularly in places where people needed a lot of housing fast, no questions asked. The stickers that read “NOT TO BE USED FOR HOUSING” were gone from the trailers almost as soon as they left the auction lot, though none of the buyers would admit to removing them.

Missing FEMA trailer sticker
Nick Shapiro

The trailers showed up later in 2010, at the Deepwater Horizon spill. They showed up in 2011 in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, in neighborhoods that had been flattened by tornadoes.

That was when Shapiro decided to follow up and started testing the trailers himself. He’d become preoccupied with them — how ubiquitous they remained despite their known risks. He defrayed his expenses by calling in favors; there was the analytical chemistry lab that agreed to run the tests for free, and a colleague who applied part of a grant from the National Science Foundation toward shipping.

Word got out that he was testing trailers, and people from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, and Illinois began to seek him out. Every test he did came in above the 16 ppm (parts per million) threshold that had been established as the new FEMA standard after the congressional hearings. None of the people who contacted Shapiro had been told, before they bought the trailers, that they were dangerous to live in. Most of them told Shapiro they couldn’t afford to move; they just appreciated knowing the risk.

Those who did try to get rid of the trailers, though, found that it wasn’t easy. Marty Horine of Clinton, Mo., bought a 32-foot ex-FEMA Gulfstream Cavalier for her son in 2007, two weeks before the trailers were officially declared unfit to live in.

Horine tried to return the trailer. The seller refused, and promptly declared bankruptcy. Horine contacted the General Services Administration, the government agency that had handled the trailer auctions. (“I’m a retired schoolteacher,” she says, dryly. “We’re a little bit of a bulldog, schoolteachers.”) But the GSA told Horine that it would only take the trailer back if she brought it to Hope, Arkansas, the site of the original auction, and it would only buy the trailer back for what the GSA had sold it for. Horine had bought hers from a reseller, for $6,000, while that reseller had bought it at auction for around $1,000.

Nick Shapiro

Horine still sees FEMA trailers for sale in Clinton from time to time. Three years ago, over a hundred of them appeared for sale on a nearby lot, with the stickers scraped off. “I went over there, just acting dumb, because that’s not hard to do,” Horine drawled. “Then I said to the girl who was in charge of selling them, ‘You know this is illegal.’” The woman said that she didn’t know what Horine was talking about, but Horine noticed that the trailers were gone the next day.

Horine’s trailer remains unoccupied. She feels that selling it would be unethical. Even if she sold it on the cheap to someone who was aware of the risks, who’s to say that person wouldn’t turn around and sell it as a home to someone else? “It’s still sitting down there,” she said when I called her, as though she were describing a visitor that had overstayed its welcome.

Shapiro began to file public records requests to find out as much as he could about the trailers, and where they went. Now, when people contacted him, he had a collection of spreadsheets that he could search through to verify whether their trailer was one of the 120,000.

When a boomtown looks like a refugee camp

When Shapiro arrived in North Dakota, he was following a rumor: that the oil boom in the Bakken Shale had attracted the Katrina trailers from across the country like filings to a magnet. What he didn’t expect was to find the trailers surrounding the towns of the Bakken boom at Katrina-level densities. These boomtowns were hard to distinguish from refugee camps.

How the trailers had made their way to North Dakota from Louisiana was a riddle. Back in 2010, FEMA donated several hundred trailers to the local Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; it would not have been hard for the trailers to migrate again out of Turtle Mountain and into the oil fields.  Shapiro was expecting to find oil and gas workers living in them. But instead the trailers were occupied by young men seeking their fortunes in the service economy that had sprung up around the oil and gas workers.

The oil and gas workers lived in nicer trailers, a few feet away. But the ones the service workers occupied were falling apart: Mold was blooming out of vents and improperly sealed crevices. In a sense, the trailers had been embalmed; now they were beginning to decompose.

The good news was, after four years of air-quality readings in FEMA trailers, the levels of formaldehyde were dropping. This spring, Shapiro returned to retest a trailer owned by a retired Mississippi couple that he had tested when they contacted him back in 2011. Back then the air had measured 105.6 ppb of formaldehyde – dangerously high.

In 2015, the level was down to 20 ppb — a fifth as high, but still over the 16 ppb safety threshold. What exactly did this mean? It’s hard to say, because no one has systematically studied how the toxic trailers might have actually harmed their residents. The CDC had a plan, known as KARE (aka, Katrina and Rita Exposures), to register and track the health of FEMA trailer residents, but it never moved past the pilot stage. Shapiro says he asked CDC why and received a letter saying that the decision to not proceed rested solely with FEMA.

Shapiro gave the couple a prototype “air remediation device” – a houseplant hooked up to an aquarium pump with the diaphragm reversed. In the last year, he’d been working with a research group called Public Lab on low-cost ways that people could monitor and clean the air in their own homes. For Shapiro, the project was a morale-booster in the face of the relentlessly dispiriting trailer research. But he also worried that the plant was a kind of cop-out — a form of potted surrender to the fact that not all environmental justice campaigns result in actual environmental justice.

He tested the couple’s trailer again, anyway. A month after the installation of the “remediation device,” the formaldehyde levels had fallen 40 percent, to 12 ppm. A decade after Katrina had summoned the trailers into existence, the ill-fated homes might almost be safe to live in.

Live in one of FEMA’s Katrina trailers? Here’s what you can do.  

Video by Mariel Carr. Special thanks to reporter Nick Shapiro. Maps by Clayton Aldern. VIN look-up tool by Cory Simmons. Video produced by The Chemical Heritage Foundation, a library, museum, and center for scholars in Philadelphia that fosters dialogue on the role of science and technology in society. Find out more about its multimedia magazine at