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The Premise: Sometimes only imagery has the power to describe things with the poignancy that words often lack. While the subject matter of David T. Hanson’s Waste Land might deviate from the traditional coffee table book, it vividly and shockingly displays man’s apathy for the consequences of destroying Mother Nature. Hanson photographically documents various toxic waste locations across 45 states known as “Superfund” sites that require a long-term abatement plan.
To get a little granular, in 1980 the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) designated a list of sites that are ranked ranging from 1 to 100 of their actual or potential release of hazardous substances. A score of 28.5 or greater puts a site on the National Priorities List, which makes it eligible for “long-term remedial action” under the Superfund program. Nearly half a million known toxic waste sites exist in the United States, and according to the book, 400 of these were declared highly hazardous and in need of immediate attention — a number that has at least tripled since 1980. Hanson shows us 67 of these Superfund sites and leaves our minds wondering what others must look like, and if we’re living near one. (If you’re that curious, you can always check www.epa.gov/superfund/search-superfund-sites-where-you-live.)
Hanson’s approach is primarily visual impact, which Waste Land does exceptionally well. Aerial photographs of the sites are flanked by a USGS topographic map of its location as well as the EPA’s own description of its history and current status. Some are as well known as Love Canal, while others are as innocuous looking as a major airport in Tucson. The sites shown, both active and abandoned, encompass illicit landfills, wood processing plants, uranium mines, smelters, military bases, and various other locations where pristine land became a receptacle for toxic chemical production and/or disposal.
The 411: Waste Land gives us a glimpse of events and locations we usually only stumble upon through random internet searches. While the book contains information that’s totally public record, as the reader you feel like you’re looking at some clandestine government file. The seemingly absent media coverage on this ongoing problem stimulates one’s conspiracy speculation as to whether or not there’s really an agenda at work to keep these horrific images out of the public conscience. The book truly delivers a knockout punch in its striking, 11 ¾ x 9 ¾-inch pages of pictorial depiction, and yet gives you only a taste of a dilemma that could comprise several dozen volumes.
We see how many of these sites are situated on or near major waterways and wildlife habitats, while others are in close proximity to residential areas or have often been swept under the proverbial rug and built over with new neighborhoods. Many of Waste Land’s site descriptions outline known contamination in local aquifers, denote that the full extent of the pollution is in some cases unknown, and leave the reader hanging with typical vague government language that cleanup may still be decades away. It shows how modern industry operates with little if any consequence for their ignorant, and often intentional, degradation of our landscape. The bureaucratic uncertainty of what can be done about it, where the money will come from, who will do the work, or if the work will ever be done definitely leaves the reader with a great deal of anxiety.
The Verdict: It’s a pessimistic topic, but one that isn’t going away anytime soon. Waste Land is the kind of book that reaffirms why it’s critical to have a survivalist mindset. As these types of sites only grow in number and government intervention can’t seem to keep up with their expansion, Hanson’s work serves as a tool to promote awareness, discussion, and action. Hopefully Waste Land readers will be inspired to follow in the footsteps of Erin Brockovich as well as be more proactive about preparing for the long-term effects this type of activity will have on our health and ecosystem. Pick up copy of Waste Land, leave it out when company comes over, and share with others what goes on everyday in our country and has no end in sight. Without books like this to help facilitate taking the fight to those who cause these problems, this kind of opportunism will continue unmitigated and turn our country into a giant landfill.
Book & Author
David T. Hanson