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'Sunny Chernobyl': Beauty In A Haze Of Pollution

Jul 14, 2012
Originally published on July 15, 2012 4:04 am

In some of the dirtiest places on Earth, author and environmentalist Andrew Blackwell found some beauty. His book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl, tours the deforestation of the Amazon, the oil sand mines in Canada and the world's most polluted city, located in China.

Blackwell says his ode to polluted locales is a bid for re-engagement with places people have shrunk away from in disgust.

Radioactive To Its Core

His first stop was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl.

"Because it's [a] quarantined, radioactive zone, everyone has left a long time ago, and very few people spend any time there," he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "You've got to go in spring, obviously, and it's just full of trees and birds and insects. And it's sort of become this huge, accidental wilderness preserve."

In a way, nature has taken over.

"The birds and the bees and the animals and the wolves are not aware, and/or don't care about radioactive contamination the way we do," Blackwell says. "There's nothing like it, and it's an absolutely unique place, and most of it is just flat-out beautiful."

Yet throughout Blackwell's trip, a Geiger counter's beeps serve as a constant reminder of contamination. At one point, while walking through the thick forest around the reactor, Blackwell's guide tells him not to walk on the moss. The moss, the mushrooms and the trees have absorbed the radioactive particles, he says.

"So it's not just a place that has been contaminated with radiation and radioactive particles on it," Blackwell says. "They are sort of in it, which is another thing that makes it so incredibly fascinating ... the ecosystem itself has sort of incorporated that pollution."

Smells Like Tar

Along with trips to places that might seem more likely to be polluted — India and China, for example — Blackwell takes a trip to Alberta, Canada. The oil industry has set up shop on huge tar sands deposits there, which would supply the prospective Keystone XL pipeline. In January, President Obama rejected an application to build the 1,700-mile pipeline.

The smell of tar lingers in the air in Alberta — sometimes infiltrating the town of Fort McMurray, but always choking the air near the tar sands.

"There's no way to dig that out of the ground without it just smelling like that everywhere," Blackwell says. "In fact, there are places along the river where naturally deposits of oil sand have been exposed, and you can even smell it there, even if it's not being dug up."

The tar pit is surrounded by pine trees and a beautiful Canadian landscape, including Crane Lake.

"Crane Lake is the sort of rehabilitated pond that the oil sand companies like to show off to convince people that they can kind of put nature back once they're done tearing it up," he says.

But there are lakes nearby that show no signs of rehabilitation. The tailings ponds, Blackwell says, hold the wastewater from the oil extraction process.

"So it's these huge poison lakes, and every once in a while a flock of ducks lands on one of these lakes and dies, just by virtue of having landed there in this poison water," he says. "And that's sort of a running controversy in Canada. Ducks are sort of the poster children for what the cost of oil sands are."

Challenging The Activists

Blackwell considers himself an environmentalist, but he also has some problems with environmental activists.

"I think there's often a temptation when you're an activist to spin things always in your direction," he says, "and I sympathize with that urge, but my belief is that we really have to be as absolutely skeptical and rigorous of things, whether or not they serve our own beliefs and politics."

He says those kinds of tests make personal beliefs stronger. Blackwell's travels are a challenge, too, questioning notions of beauty about places that have been ignored for their environmental filth.

"I describe this as a love letter to the world's most polluted places not because I love pollution, but because I think by using these places as horror stories, we've kind of chosen to disengage from them," he says. "So that's why I thought, I'm going to go to polluted places and find what's still natural, what's still beautiful, what's still worth caring about."

In these polluted places, Blackwell says, "there's still an environment, even if it's not what we wish it would be."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Coronado Beach, in San Diego, was ranked America's best beach this year by the coastal researcher Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach. Waikiki, in Hawaii, and Hatteras, in North Carolina, make the cut this year as well. All great vacation spots for a little time away this summer - unless you're writer Andrew Blackwell, who decided to take his vacation at the dirtiest, most polluted spots on earth: an oil pit in Canada; a city in India with open sewers; and the most famous one, Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear accident. He wrote about these places in his new book. It's called "Visit Sunny Chernobyl." And in those places, he found surprising beauty.

ANDREW BLACKWELL: (Reading) The world thinks of Chernobyl as a place where humankind had overwhelmed and destroyed nature. The phrase "dead zone" still gets tossed around. But this was nowhere more obviously untrue than here, watching the sunset, my entire horizon a quiet rhapsody of water, sun and trees. Paradoxically, perversely, the accident may actually have been good for this environment.

RAZ: Good for the environment - well, that's up for debate. But in Chernobyl, Andrew Blackwell discovered that with an absence of human civilization, nature has simply retaken the place.

BLACKWELL: You come into Chernobyl and because it's a quarantined, radioactive zone, everyone has left a long time ago; and very few people spend any time there. And so it's - you've got to go in spring, obviously, and it's just full of trees and birds and insects. And it's sort of become this huge, accidental wilderness preserve.

RAZ: Nature's taken over.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Exactly.

RAZ: Retaken over.

BLACKWELL: It really has become, in a lot of ways, very parallel to a national park or a reserve, although a little spookier.

RAZ: The Chernobyl National Nature Reserve.

BLACKWELL: I really think they should make it a World Heritage Site. There's nothing like it, and it's an absolutely unique place. And most of it is just flat-out beautiful. I really defy anyone to walk through Chernobyl on a sunny day, and say that it's not a beautiful place.

RAZ: Were you wearing a protective suit?

BLACKWELL: No, no. I did buy a track suit, you know, in case - the real question is if you're going to get contaminated. There's no protecting, really, against being eradiated; at least, when it comes to gamma rays. But the question is, are you going to get nuclear material on you; worked into your hair, or your clothes. And you don't want to track that away with...

RAZ: At a certain point, your guide, Dennis, says don't step on the moss. You're walking through this thick forest to get a glimpse of the actual reactor.

BLACKWELL: And that's one fascinating thing about Chernobyl - is that the moss, the mushrooms, even the trees have absorbed the radioactive particles into them. And so it's not just a place that has been contaminated with radiation or radioactive particles on it. They are sort of in it, which is another thing that makes it so incredibly fascinating - is that sort of the ecosystem itself has incorporated that pollution.

RAZ: This book, of course, hops around the world to the world's most polluted places. A lot of places you visited seem obvious in the developing world - India and China. But you also visited one of the world's most polluted places here - right here in North America - Alberta, Canada.

BLACKWELL: That's where the oil sands industry is focused, in Northern Alberta.

RAZ: This is where they found this huge deposit of tar sands. And this is related to the Keystone pipeline that we've been hearing a lot about; trying to figure out a way to get that oil to the U.S., and markets around the world. You say that the town, Fort McMurray, that it actually smells like oil.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Downtown, not always. But as soon as you sort of point yourself towards the mines, which are about a half-hour drive up the road, it starts to smell like tar, really - because that's what it is. It's a giant deposit of sludgy, tarry sand. It's called bitumen sand. And, you know, there's no way to dig that out of the ground without it just smelling like that everywhere. And, in fact, there are places along the river where naturally, deposits of oil sand have been exposed, and you can even smell it there, even if it's not being dug up.

RAZ: It's a huge tar pit, but in this sort of idyllic setting, right? I mean, you've got pine trees and this beautiful - sort of Canadian landscape, and then this huge facility, these tar sands. And then there's this amazing lake, Crane Lake, that you write about; right there.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Well, Crane Lake isn't even the most amazing lake. Crane Lake is a sort of rehabilitated pond that the oil sand companies like to show off, to convince people that they can kind of put nature back once they're done tearing it up. The real lakes, that are most interesting there, are the tailings ponds, which are sort of giant lakes of wastewater that is used in the extraction process when they're upgrading the sand, sort of getting the oil out of the sand. So it's these huge, poison lakes.

And every once in a while, a flock of ducks lands on one of these lakes and dies, just by virtue of having landed there in this poison water. And that's sort of a running controversy in Canada. Ducks are sort of the poster children for what the cost of oil sands are.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Andrew Blackwell. He's written a new book. It's called "Visit Sunny Chernobyl, and Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places." You are an environmentalist - you call yourself an environmentalist - but you also have some problems with environmental activists that you come across in some of these places. Why is that?

BLACKWELL: I think that even if we care about the environment, it's very important to be absolutely hard core about finding out what is true. And I think there's often a temptation, when you're an activist, to spin things always in your direction. And I sympathize with that urge, but my belief is that we really have to be as absolutely skeptical and rigorous of things, whether or not they serve our own beliefs and politics because that will make our beliefs stronger if they've - you know, stood the test of science, and so on.

And I describe this as a love letter to the world's most polluted places - not because I love pollution, but because I think by using these places as horror stories, we've kind of chosen to disengage from them. And I think that sense of, only what is beautiful counts as a pure or clean environment - that can be a force for disengagement; and for ignoring places that really need to be embraced, in some ways.

And so that's why I thought, I'm going to go to polluted places and find what's still natural, what's still beautiful, what's still worth caring about; because there will always be something after we've ruined a place. There's still a place there. There's still some kind of nature. There's still an environment, even if it's not what we wish it would be.

RAZ: That's Andrew Blackwell. His new book is called "Visit Sunny Chernobyl, and Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places." Andrew, thanks so much.

BLACKWELL: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.