Tag Archives: Toxics

How Galway’s Trash is Reminsicent of Portland’s Air

I want to share a story about pollution, and the excuses that are made to pretend that ignoring its existence will solve the problem.

I moved to Galway, Ireland, for a spell when I was 25. (If I had my druthers, I would never have left! Ah, immigration!) I arrived on an amazing September day, walking through the center city, pondering how and where I was going to work, where I would live, and what music I would see first. My meanderings took me from Shop Street, to High Street, to Quay Street, the fresh Galway Bay air surrounding me, billowing clouds in the sky, a lighthearted stride and a new beginning.

A walkway led along a tributary to Lough Corrib, which I was admiring, when I came across a fairly thick dam of rubbish – all sorts of plastic trash, a few sneakers, some chunky items I cannot recall – and my image of this beautiful and clean city came crashing down: This could not be the result of one, or even solely a few- days of filth tossed into a river, carried downstream and plugged by a dam that on wetter days would see the water carried over its top. Why was this there?! It’s a city sustained by tourism – doesn’t anyone care to keep up its image, at least?

I decided that I was going to figure out what to do about it.

I walked to the city’s administrative buildings, and spoke with the councilor for the local environment (my terms might be wrong, here, but the man was in charge of keeping the city clean.) I described what I had seen, and he said, “Sure, it’s not usually a problem! September has seen little rain, and most of the year the water carries all that rubbish into the Bay and out to sea!” We then had a discussion about how that wasn’t truly the solution to Galway’s rubbish issues, but I divined that there really wasn’t anyone employed to clean the Lough, and that was that.

So I went to the University College Galway (now NUI) to see if I could borrow a fishing net with a long handle to scoop the stuff out. The professor I spoke with was somewhat skeptical of my endeavors, but allowed me to borrow the net, as long as I returned it by the end of the day. I took the net, bought some gloves and ten large black plastic bags, returned to the scene and got to work.

I filled one, two, three, four black plastic bags, receiving stares and furtive quizzical looks all the while. When I was up to my eighth bag, a man, the one person who had briefly struck up conversation during my junk-fishing bonanza, had purchased more bags and brought them to me.  I think I filled about twelve bags in all, and I actually began to find interesting the discarded crap in the nets.

I talked a construction crew into allowing me to sling the bags into  their skips, returned the nets, and felt a little better that, once the rain came, everything that would have been washed out to sea was diverted into landfill. (Of course, I then discovered that Galway, the fastest growing city in western Europe, only had a primary treatment plant. The swans were bathing in raw sewage! Oi.)

So where am I going with this? Today, as with many days this summer, quite a few this autumn and several already this winter, Cully’s air has been fouled with the stench of asphalt, mainly due to  atmospheric inversion.  On the days when the ground temperature is warmer than the air, it is less noticeable, so there is a better chance that the VOCs and other airborne toxics remain unnoticeable. There is no problem, right? The pollution heads skyward, dissipates, and is essentially non-existent – or at least harder to pinpoint.

The same argument prevails, that, given the right conditions, pollution goes away. It’s not in our back yard, or in anyone’s back yard. It’s for the Earth to absorb or disperse. Portland is an unwilling recipient of toxics from China, Boardman, and other distant locations, all due to atmospheric conditions. All pollution ends up somewhere. In a twisted way, our toxic inversions are positive events as they alert people that there are truly problems with our air quality legislation – they can call, complain, get active in issues that affect everyone. People need clean air to survive. We can’t let industry or government continue to hide behind the guise of dissipation or loss of jobs. Call DEQ when you smell anything! It’s up to us.