Sam Burnham, Curator
I had a tweet go viral this week. It somehow got picked up by someone and was included in a Twitter Moment along with tweets by some much more well known and more widely published writers than myself. The tweet was bemoaning the fact that there has been a train filled with 10 million pounds of processed sewage stranded in the town of Parrish Alabama for the last two months. Sure, I tried to make it comical and for the most part that worked. But this is also just one example of a growing issue.
Technically the train is filled with "biowaste" which appears to be a catchall label for any organic waste material that will decompose. This particular batch of "biowaste" is from processed sewage in New York and New Jersey. It could be a mixture of feces, food waste, vomit, toilet paper, used tampons, used condoms, any organic material that was flushed down a toilet or ground in a garbage disposal in the New York City area. Now it is sitting in a rail yard in the Alabama sunshine, waiting for summer.
The material technically belongs to a company called Big Sky Environmental, a name that could have you thinking they preserve the snow capped peaks of Montana. In reality, they run a landfill and buy literal feces from the Yankees and dump it in Alabama. The train is supposed to be headed for The Big Sky Environmental landfill near Adamsville. While en route, it was to be stored in a rail yard in West Jefferson but the residents there passed an ordinance against storing such material in their town. Since Parish has no such ordinance, Big Sky has decided to store the train there.
At 50,000 tons, the train's contents constitute two full days of the landfill's rated daily intake as published on the company's website. As they have many other customers, including municipalities, they'll have to fit the trainload in as demand dictates availability.
Now, a modern fix for this problem is for Parrish to pass an ordinance of their own to force the train out and never allow it to return. But my question is why that is necessary. Why must people who have chosen a more rural life be forced to put up with this nuisance because 20.3 million people decided to cram themselves as close as they could get to the confluence of the East and Hudson Rivers? Why do we, as a society, allow a megalopolis simply pile all their crap onto a train and dump it on people who have suitable methods of dealing with their own crap? It brings back a question my high school biology teacher posed to us when we talked about throwing stuff away - "Where is away?"
As more people continue to cram themselves into American cities, this is just one issue that has to be dealt with. It is not fair to saddle rural America with this burden. And while I prefer a free market, such a market depends on us making decisions and having a collective conscience. Big Sky is in this for money. That is not evil in and of itself. In fact, that is why people go into business. They are providing a few jobs in the Adamsville and therefore are having an economic impact on the area. But is the (likely small) amount of money coming into the economy worth the hassle that is being caused in the area? Once the landfill is full and no longer usable, what will Big Sky do in regards to the local economy? Why isn't a modern and forward thinking place like New York City not coming up with modern and forward thinking ways to deal with their own waste? Biomass energy generation comes to mind, especially for a place that won't ever turn the lights off at night.
If nothing else, this should serve as a metaphor for the exploitation that rural areas are having to endure from urban areas. Major policies - gun control, economics, education, energy, etc, are based on urban and suburban experiences and then forced on rural areas and small towns. Refuse of every kind - garbage, biowaste, coal ash - is gathered in the cities and disposed of in rural landfills. The elites preach about sustainability and other "green" policies and even attack the emissions of livestock, especially cattle, but still fill their streets with cars and bury potential biomass energy sources in acres of potential farmland - farmland that could be producing sustainable food for Birmingham and the surrounding area. Could be. If it wasn't filling up with New York City's feces.
But there is no policy, no government action, no law that can solve this. If Parrish were to pass an ordinance, Big Sky would just relocate this rancid mass to some other unsuspecting location. This is an issue for this conscience of this nation. The only way this can be truly solved is for companies like Big Sky to realize that their bottom line is not more important than their neighbors, for cities like New York to put action and intellectual forthrightness into their sustainable rhetoric.
Until that happens, Big Sky needs to come get their train.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire