published Monday, March 14th, 2011

Cook: What would John Carr do?

It was nearly one year ago, and John Carr could not sleep.

Forty-one miles off the Louisiana coast, a British Petroleum oil well was leaking tens of thousands of barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. Last April’s oil blowout would cause incalculable damage — to sea life, Panhandle industry and the national conscience — and hundreds of miles away in his Hixson bedroom, John Carr was having nightmares.

But the most haunting part for him was not the environmental damage.

“He couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact we all were so calm about it,” said his mother, Carol Carr.

John is 13 years old. He has a round face, brown eyes and red hair. The only vegetarian in his house, John loves cows and is hashing out plans to build his own biodiesel pump.

He also has autism.

And after knowing his story, I wholeheartedly believe that John Carr should receive a direct phone line to the mayor, a seat at the table during TVA board meetings and all of our undivided attention.

In our hit-and-run culture, John Carr forces us to confront the truth.

And then demands we act.

Asked why he was doing all of this, he said: “To save the planet.”

It all began with a mother-and-son afternoon walk last fall.

“We kept having to step over all these cans people had tossed out as trash,” said Carol Carr. “So John came up with an idea to solve the problem.”

Each week, the Carrs visit nearly 80 households where folks have bagged together their cans and bottles. The Carrs collect the trash, take it to the recycling center and donate the money they receive to local nonprofits.

“If you call us, we’ll come,” she said. “Once, we even went to Rome, Ga.”

John Carr’s environmental philosophy ought to be the standard, not the exception.

Instead of passing legislation that would deport undocumented workers from America, let’s deport BP.

Or Velsicol.

The chemical corporation, which once operated an industry on the banks of Chattanooga Creek in Alton Park, exists as the exact opposite of John Carr. Instead of stooping down to pick up cans, it has a history of wrecking the places where it has operated.

According to government documents: Velsicol at the corporate level tried to squelch the 1960s publication of the influential “Silent Spring” since the chemicals mentioned in the book — later known to be incredibly poisonous — were among the ones Velsicol manufactured.

Later, after the chemicals were banned in the United States, Velsicol sold the pesticides to overseas farmers who sprayed them on crops they then sold to U.S. grocers.

In the 1970s, Velsicol in Michigan made a fire retardant called Firemaster and a livestock supplement called Nutrimaster. Less than 1,000 pounds of the fire retardant was mistakenly shipped as the supplement to the Michigan Farm Bureau where it was mixed into livestock feed.

Before the animals began to sicken and die, the contaminant had risen up the food chain. Tests five years later found that 90 percent of Michigan residents had been exposed, and of those whose fatty tissues were tested, 97 percent still retained residual levels of the toxic chemical PBB in their bodies.

Eventually the Velsicol site in Michigan was placed on the national priority Superfund list in 1982 because, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “discharges from the plant and poor housekeeping practices” contaminated the Pine River, soils and groundwater nearby.

Near Memphis, Velsicol left another Superfund site in its wake.

There, about 130,000 drums of waste from the company’s Hardeman County pesticide plant were dumped onsite, contaminating soil and groundwater. Contamination was found in private drinking water wells in 1979.

Sound familiar? This is what frustrates residents here in Chattanooga, who beg for the land around them to be clean.

Velsicol claims it is cleaning up, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is considering Velsicol’s “final remedy” plan. The plan calls for dumping 18 inches of soil on top of the site.

Eighteen inches? They spread more dirt on the AT&T infield.

“The state can’t tell Velsicol what [use] to do with its property,” Clayton Bullington, a TDEC permit writer, told a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter.

Why not? The state is charged with protecting the interests of its citizens, not fleeing chemical companies.

Here’s a solution: Velsicol tries to be more like John Carr. Hiring unemployed Chattanoogans, Velsicol trains them in the remediation of polluted land, and pays them to clean up — completely and totally — the industrial site in Alton Park. The land is then suitable for gardens and playgrounds or Tennessee’s first Green Jobs College, which trains workers in sustainable practices.

To help, Mayor Littlefield and the city government rezone the site from industrial to residential, which then would require a stricter set of cleanup standards.

Don’t say this is an impossible dream.

John Carr — whose generation will inherit the earth we leave behind — won’t let you.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org. To sign up for John Carr’s recycling pickup, call 842-1444.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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