Silent Spring – The Rocky Mountain Arsenal

A 2012 discussion of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."
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Book Club Host
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Silent Spring – The Rocky Mountain Arsenal

Post by Book Club Host » Mon Jul 23, 2012 3:45 pm

Interestingly, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal described by Carson as a source of "devastating" groundwater contamination, is now a National Wildlife Refuge.

Let's contrast Carson's telling of what occurred on that site in the 1940's - 50's with what the Rocky Mountain Arsenal has to say about that period today:

An excerpt from the Arsenal's own history:
In the summer following Pearl Harbor, the United States government decided it needed the flat open farmland east of the small town of Derby for the site of a chemical weapons plant. As a result of condemnation hearings held in the U.S. District Court on June 15, 1942, the government laid claim to the 20,000 acres of farmland. After the Government purchased the land, tenants were given the option of moving their houses at their own expense or selling them to the government. The Herskinds, who had just gotten electricity that year but didn't have a phone, found out about the forced evacuation when a relative brought them a notice in the daily paper.

"I don't think we really believed it then," recalls Herskind. "But once we drove down to our south field and saw the Army trucks dumping lumber in the middle of a ripe wheat field across the street, we realized how fast things were moving." Despite the urgency of the evacuation order, Herskind is not bitter about what happened. "War feelings were such that there was no resistance to the vacate order. We loved the farm and the land. It was beautiful farmland, very rich and flat. But we all remembered what happened at Pearl Harbor. We just wanted the war over, and when Uncle Sam said he needed our land, we were willing to help in any way we could.
You can read the full history here:

Carson's telling:
In 1943, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal of the Army Chemical Corps, located near Denver, began to manufacture war materials. Eight years later the facilities of the arsenal were leased to a private oil company for the production of insecticides. Even before the change of operations, however, mysterious reports had begun to come in. Farmers several miles from the plant began to report unexplained sickness among livestock; they complained of extensive crop damage. Foliage turned yellow, plants failed to mature, and many crops were killed outright. There were reports of human illness, thought by some to be related.

The irrigation waters on these farms were derived from shallow wells. When the well waters were examined (in a study in 1959, in which several state and federal agencies participated) they were found to contain an assortment of chemicals. Chlorides, chlorates, salts of phosphoric acid, fluorides, and arsenic had been discharged from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal into holding ponds during the years of its operation. Apparently the groundwater between the arsenal and the farms had become contaminated and it had taken 7 to 8 years for the wastes to travel underground a distance of about 3 miles from the holding ponds to the nearest farm. This seepage had continued to spread and had further contaminated an area of unknown extent. The investigators knew of no way to contain the contamination or halt its advance.

All this was bad enough, but the most mysterious and probably in the long run the most significant feature of the whole episode was the discovery of the weed killer 2,4-D in some of the wells and in the holding ponds of the arsenal. Certainly its presence was enough to account for the damage to crops irrigated with this water. But the mystery lay in the fact that no 2,4-D had been manufactured at the arsenal at any stage of its operations.

After long and careful study, the chemists at the plant concluded that the 2,4-D had been formed spontaneously in the open basins. It had been formed there from other substances discharged from the arsenal; in the presence of air, water, and sunlight, and quite without the intervention of human chemists, the holding ponds had become chemical laboratories for the production of a new chemical—a chemical fatally damaging to much of the plant life it touched.

And so the story of the Colorado farms and their damaged crops assumes a significance that transcends its local importance. What other parallels may there be, not only in Colorado but wherever chemical pollution finds its way into public waters? In lakes and streams everywhere, in the presence of catalyzing air and sunlight, what dangerous substances may be born of parent chemicals labeled ‘harmless’?
Wondering how much the Arsenal's telling of events was written in response to Silent Spring?

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