In 1986, when I was twelve, I wrote a letter to President Reagan and demanded to know what he planned on doing about the growing problem of toxic waste. I was an avid reader of Time Magazine. I knew all about Love Canal, NY. I also knew about the toxic waste problem my own town faced at the time. My hometown, East Windsor, CT, was filled with acres and acres of farms. Across the street from our house was a corn field. On the east side of town, where a lot of my friends lived, was acres of tobacco fields. In my town most kids had their first job working on tobacco farms in the summer because they hired fourteen year olds. My oldest sister and my brother both worked tobacco for a summer, but I never did.

Sometime in the mid ‘80s someone discovered that a toxic pesticide called ethylene dibromide had polluted the groundwater on the east side of town. I remember hearing my friends talk about having to use bottled water at home. “Can you shower in that water?” I asked. Basically you could splash your toothbrush and take a shower, but it was not advised to drink or cook with tap water. The state had installed filtration systems to make the groundwater potable.

Someone working for President Reagan sent back a form letter, but never answered my question directly. The answer came from action. The EPA developed the concept of Superfund sites, and places like Love Canal were getting cleaned up. And then nobody really thought about the toxic waste problem anymore. Time Magazine went on to talk about other things, so did everyone else. After all, Chernobyl happened, the cold war was still raging, the Iran-Contra hearings happened. Life went on.

Years later I moved to Western Rhode Island. Behind my house is dense forest that extends for miles. Todd and I hiked out there a few times and found an old logging trail about a half mile from our house. Todd had found a fenced in building out in the forest, and we looked it up on Google Earth to see what it was.

A Google search revealed that about three quarters of a mile behind our house was a Superfund site from the ‘80s—the Picillo Pig Farm Superfund site. I read story after story about a pig farmer in the ‘70s and ‘80s who quickly learned it was more lucrative to store toxic waste on his 100 acres than it was to farm pigs. I read stories about eighteen wheeler trucks pulling into the farm, with out of state plates, often in the middle of the night. And then one day there was a large explosion on the farm. It would seem that the tens of thousands of barrels buried in the earth on the farm eventually leaked, chemical reactions occurred and ka-pow! And that got everyone’s attention.

The farmer fled to Florida. The EPA came in to find tens of thousands of barrels buried in the ground. They even found an entire trailer from an eighteen wheeler truck buried under the ground, the trailer was filled with barrels. Why bother unloading the truck, just bury the whole damn trailer, right? Let’s be efficient with polluting the earth!

The EPA came in and disposed of all those barrels. They carted off the contaminated soil. They installed a pumping station that pumps out the groundwater, cleans it, and sends it back into the ground. That’s the fenced in building that Todd saw that time when he hiked out there. The last of the contaminated soil was carted off in 1998, 10 years before Todd and I would buy this house and a decade after I wrote to President Reagan and demanded he take action about the toxic waste problem in America. I have since read that tests of the water at the site are coming up clean, but the pumping continues just in case. This is a picture of the pumping station.

Picillo pig farm superfund site

We had heard about this when we were buying the house, and were assured that it wasn’t a problem anymore. Then last year we got a letter in the mail from some outfit in Providence that wanted to come and test our well water. The cleanup and continued random testing of the water at houses in a certain radius of the site are at the expense of the pig farmer and the companies whose waste was buried right in my backyard. Of course I said yes to the testing. Then a few months later the results came back as negative to any toxic chemicals in my drinking water.

This morning the company came again to test the water again. I directed them to the hose, and they pulled samples. In about six months I’ll get the results again. I have also read that residents are returning to Love Canal as well. I feel safe drinking my tap water, there is a full glass of it on my desk right now. The trees in the forest behind my house are getting their spring leaves and appear vibrantly healthy, despite the toxins that once were in the ground.

But who knows how much longer the dumping would have gone on had that explosion not occurred? We were the lucky ones that didn’t end up with a high incidence of cancer like the residents in Love Canal.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.