Thursday, August 25, 2011

It is Only Certain Kinds of Pollution That Don't Belong in Cemeteries

One of the latest fronts to open in the ongoing fight against Shale Gas drilling concerns drilling leases sold by various cemeteries in the area. Just this week the issue has garnered an article from the Post Gazette as well as an editorial. I have seen both of these pieces making their way around social networking where the very thought of drilling in cemeteries is invariably condemned.

This condemnation can't make use of all of the usual talking points against Shale Gas, however. Many of the arguments just don't apply. Cemetery land doesn't usually contain wells for drinking water or crops that may be polluted by run off. Of course, the usual points about surrounding properties and fracking fluid are still live.

Since some of those talking points are impotent, opponents have adopted a different tack. They stress a moral opposition to drilling on cemetery land. County Council Vice President Charles Martoni calls the area "sacred ground" and the PG editorial stresses the "quiet, green and peaceful" nature of the cemetery and calls it 'hallowed'. Finally the executive director of Catholic Cemeteries Association in the Pittsburgh Diocese goes so far as to say "We would never allow any activity within the cemetery properties that compromises our mission or the sacred nature of the Catholic cemetery."

From these descriptions you would think that the maintenance of such sacred space is already scrupulously performed with an eye to honoring the land by maintaining its pristine character.

You would be wrong!

The fact is that at least one of the cemeteries, right here in the city, is already terribly polluted. Allegheny Cemetery has created a landfill that can be seen from space. What you are looking at in that picture is a pile of trash and dirt about 300 feet across sitting directly on a creek bed that goes on to drain into the Allegheny. This pile of garbage is over ten feet high in some places and contains not only remnants of the decorative items that had been placed on graves, but also: electronics, tires, household waste, clothes, food and plastic of all kinds. Indeed this garbage pit is just 100 yards down a road from the municipal garden plots that sit on Stanton Ave. No effort is even made to section this area off or mark it as 'No Trespassing': one just walks down the hill from his garden plot and finds himself standing knee deep in waste.

Where is an activist when you need one?

Now, fair enough, this pile isn't found right at the front gate. Still, it sits right on a waterway that dumps into the Allegheny. Further, this sort of thing is not standard cemetery practice. Arial views of Homewood and Calvary Cemeteries reveal areas for dumping displaced dirt from burials, but you don't see anywhere near this level of debris and waste in them. 

Now surely this kind of thing violates all kinds of laws against dumping. And if, for some strange exemption, it doesn't, it certainly should. 

But I think the more important thing about the state of this cemetery is that it shows the arguments that drilling activist have been using are only being used rhetorically. No one is really interested in making sure cemeteries are clean, because if they were, they would be focused on the very real state of this trash heap rather than sending press releases filled with speculative concerns about future drilling that may never happen. The moral argument that was used above is just as powerful against this style of pollution as it is against gas drilling. This does just as much to destroy the verdant and reverential place that we build for the dead as would a horizontal well. 

This practice has clearly gone on for quite some time. I cannot have been the first person in Pittsburgh to come across it or even complain about it. A pile of garbage over ten feet tall didn't just appear overnight. But, the fact is that this particular variety of pollution doesn't fit into a narrative that powerful people are making use of at the moment and so it is certain that nothing will be done about it.

From a political standpoint there is nothing to be gained by trying to get this area cleaned up. It would make life more pleasant for the few that walk dogs and hike through the cemetery and it would burden the cemetery itself with a hefty clean-up and so make a political enemy. The moral argument, it seems, only gains traction when it suits the agenda of those who employ it.

 If only we could amend the city charter.

So do activist groups really recognize the cemetery as sacred space? Then, please, do something to address this desecration of it. But, the cynic in me suspects that a different kind of recognition took place. Activists recognized a chance to goad a few knee jerk reactions and took it. 

When moral questions are reduced to mere conflicting positions the right answer is just the one that wins the conflict. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, excellent post. Thanks for bringing a new perspective on the issue.