Gulf oil drilling is just one facet of South’s surfeit of heavy industry

With nearly 4,000 active rigs extracting oil and gas 24/7 from the sea bed, and ships constantly ferrying workers and supplies to and from the platforms, the Gulf of Mexico is both a habitat in peril and a hub of economic activity.

Rachel Edmonds talks about her trip through the South.

“It’s like a floating city out there, an industrial landscape,” notes Rachel Edmonds, a UC Berkeley alum with a keen interest in places like the Gulf where “dirty” industries provide jobs and economic stability but also tend to transform and threaten the natural environment.

A Cal grad in landscape architecture and environmental planning (LAEP) (MLA, ’09) and city and regional planning (MCP, ’06), Edmonds returned recently from an extended road trip through the American South, where many of the nation’s dirtiest industries are concentrated. Her solo journey was sponsored by a Geraldine Knight Scott Travel Fellowship, awarded each year to graduating LAEP students, and took her to sites that the average tourist studiously avoids.

Covering 6,500 miles in 10 weeks in a rental car (“it’s not a luxury opportunity; you’re roughing it,” she says of the fellowship), Edmonds visited nearly 20 sites, among them scarred moonscapes in Kentucky coal country; a hog-fattening hotspot — eastern North Carolina; Savannah’s booming industrial port; and a hulking river-control structure outside New Orleans, where her journey began and ended this spring.

Attempting to control a mighty river

Edmonds first learned about the lower-Mississippi river-control system in John McPhee’s 1989 book, “The Control of Nature.” Built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the early 1960s, the concrete floodgates “don’t look like much, but they’re really important,” she says, to the survival of New Orleans and the heavy industry concentrated in the New Orleans-to-Baton Rouge “Chemical Alley.” Left to its own devices, the mighty Mississippi would shift course, seeking the shortest route to the sea; most of its water would divert down the Atchafalaya River.

The river “wants to be elsewhere,” she notes. “The control mechanisms in the river — that’s what keeps New Orleans going.” These structures maintain a steady 70 percent of the Mississippi’s volume headed towards New Orleans, a city whose massive earthen levee system was compromised not so long ago in Katrina’s aftermath. “Freezing the Mississippi in time,” as she puts it, “essentially creates other detrimental consequences: highly volatile channel conditions, wetlands deprived of land-building sediment, even coastal subsidence.”

In approaching the Old River Control Structure and the other industrial operations along her route, Edmonds introduced herself as a recent UC Berkeley grad interested in how the local landscape is impacted by economic development. Whether regarded initially as a “hippie” or an inquisitive researcher from a university known for environmental scholarship, the Berkeley pedigree “helped me out considerably,” she says, as locals opened up to describe the role that industry plays, for better and for worse, in their communities.

The dirty work of raising hogs and mining coal

Rachel Edmonds

Rachel Edmonds (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

In North Carolina, Edmonds enlisted the assistance of Southwings, a conservation organization that offers free aerial reconnaissance and education flights, in small aircraft piloted by volunteers, for researchers, journalists, environmental groups, and others. From the air, Edmonds got a literal overview of the region’s extensive hog-raising industry, looking down at hundreds of concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), where contract farmers “do the dirty work” of raising hogs for corporate meat-processing plants.

“Thirteen percent of all the hogs produced in the U.S. come out of a few counties in North Carolina,” Edmonds says. “From the road, the indicator of these operations is your nostrils” — as hogs produce, in proportion to their size, four times as much manure as humans. The hog waste is stored in large pools, each a pinkish-colored “messy soup” of fecal matter and antibiotics, she says; many are situated perilously close to a waterway. Edmonds notes that hog farming has taken the place of tobacco as an economic mainstay for the Carolinas’ coastal plain, and that laws are structured so that small-scale CAFO operators assume the liability for potential environmental damage.

She also visited eastern Kentucky coal country, where shaft mining at one time was a major source of employment. That method has since given way to strip mining and surface mining and, most recently, to wholesale mountaintop removal — each system “more devastating to the mountains and debilitating to community morale,” Edmonds says. With mountaintop removal, jobs are few and mountain ranges “are literally being torn down” by explosives and machinery. After a detonation, the debris typically ends up in adjacent valleys, where it “contaminates stream water and causes devastating environmental and public health problems,” she notes.

Picturing complex issues

Edmonds recently move to Portland, Ore., where, while looking for work, she is developing a set of graphics to describe and explain the complex issues explored on her Scott travel fellowship.

“There’s a lot of writing out there” on the industries in question, but “not a lot to help people picture it in their minds,” she says. “My aim is to pique public curiosity as to how the South’s economic drivers exert pressure on the landscape, and then bring awareness to the fact that livelihoods, cultures, and traditions are also part of the equation. The Deepwater Horizon saga began that conversation among the public. I’d like to add something to it.”

To read more about Edmonds’ travels in the American South, see her travel blog.