PhD Researcher, University of California, Irvine
Contributor, Platypus: The CASTAC Blog
Tim Schütz is a PhD researcher in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His current research focuses on civic data and infrastructure in highly polluted communities. As a member of the Design Group for the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), he is interested in research project architecture and community outreach.
Contributions to Platypus: The CASTAC Blog
When our research group entered the Formosa Plastics museum in Taiwan, the first thing we noticed was a massive piece of kauri wood, sitting protected under a dome of glass. Wang Yung Ching, chairman of the company and formerly Taiwan’s richest person, had acquired the burl in 2002, after seeing it in an art gallery in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. As our tour guide explained with excitement, Wang was captivated by the wood’s radiant strength, representing the “immeasurable capabilities and longevity of the Formosa Plastics Group”, making it an ideal “centerpiece” for the company’s six-floor museum[note id=”1″ type=”mark”] . Exhibits celebrate the founder and spirit of the Formosa Plastics Group (complete with dioramas and wax figures) and a miniature replica of Formosa’s 6th Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant in Central Taiwan. The fourth floor has an Earth Conservation Theatre. The sixth floor conveys how Formosa has given back to society through investment in education, hospitals, and cultural heritage projects[note id=”2″ type=”mark”] .
Editors’s note: Click here to read the author’s MA thesis expanding on this topic.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon in March, our Field Campus group walked through downtown Granite City, Illinois. Located just 6 miles north of St. Louis, the downtown was a markedly post-industrial landscape. Many of the red brick buildings were vacant and showed signs of lasting decay. Weedy patches of open land occasionally provided views of a large nearby factory. It was hard to tell if coffee and sandwich shops were closed forever.
The factory, a U.S. Steel Corps manufacturing plant called Granite City Works was founded by two German immigrants in 1896, along with the city itself. In 2009, the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) ranked neighborhoods in Granite City at the second highest risk for cancer in the country, highlighting the plant’s coke ovens as a likely source (McGuire 2009). Coke oven emissions include benzene, arsenic, and lead (Earthjustice 2019) – that people breathe, and soils absorb. Another source of toxic air pollution has been the NL Industries/Taracorp lead smelter. Before its closure in 1983, the smelter contaminated over 1,600 households in Granite City and beyond, eventually turning into an EPA superfund cleanup site (Singer, n.d.). The US EPA recognized that the highest concentrations of lead in the air are around smelters. Lead in the air means lead in the soil. Tearing down houses in “blighted” sections of the city exacerbates the problem since demolitions release the lead in the paint of older buildings (Blythe 2019). Granite City is certainly a hot spot.
As we walked through Granite City, we were guided by our local collaborator and artist Chris Carl, whose work with the urban renewal group New American Gardening “explores garden making on vacant lots and post industrial land.” Chris led us to the particular plot, pointing to a number of concrete blocks scattered around the ground. One of the blocks featured a warning symbol etched into its top, the other had the letters ‘Pb’ scrawled upon it – which, as he informed us, is the chemical abbreviation for lead. The blocks were Chris’s “DIY version of a lead remediation,” an intervention he began after a project by the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences and a visit by EPA officials who confirmed low levels of lead all over the area after conducting the requisite soil testing. The levels on the site we were standing on, however, had proven to be “off the charts.” Notably, both Madison County and the U.S. Steel Trust had provided funding for this pilot plot.