Stirring Up Dust [Part I]

By Piotr Wojcik

Interpretive collage featuring images from Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. What does it take for us to see and recognize pollution, power, and other possible futures embedded in the landscapes we inhabit? Source images: Sharon Kelly, Piotr Wojcik, Biodiversity Heritage Library, PurpleAir, Google Maps.

When the East coast’s oldest and largest oil refinery exploded in June 2019, many nearby residents were advised to shelter in place as plumes of dark smoke (potentially carrying highly toxic airborne chemicals) drifted over large swaths of South Philadelphia. I remember being horrified when I first saw a video of the dramatic orange flames, sitting at a computer nearly 500 miles away in Detroit, Michigan. The visceral image of the explosion made the Philly refinery appear as a much more obvious health hazard than Detroit’s auto manufacturers, which were being applauded for bringing badly needed jobs to the city even as many communities were experiencing the decidedly un-dramatic yet equally deadly effects of slow and consistent exploitation by corporate polluters. I myself became concerned by the amount of grime I’d have to dig out from under my fingernails and scrub off my face after biking in the wake of countless cars and trucks on a hot summer day—what exactly was I breathing in?

Once I returned to Philly that fall, I joined the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) as a public research intern and learned that residents of the South Philly neighborhoods of Grays Ferry and Point Breeze have been resisting the slow violence of the fossil fuel industry for generations—in fact, longtime refinery neighbor and community activist Sylvia Bennett calls the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) complex the “silent killer.” The majority-Black communities living in the wake of the 13,000-acre site struggle with abnormally high rates of cancer, asthma, and a myriad of other problems that are intertwined with a long history of racism and oppression.

Naturally, I celebrated along with community residents, environmental activists, and other concerned scholars when the site’s new owner, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, indicated that its real estate transformation plan involved a permanent closure of the refinery. But why did it take an enormous fireball and a massive cloud of smoke for the “silent killer” to get shut down? And why were increasingly precarious jobs being pitted against public and environmental health in what seemed like a lose-lose scenario?

In February 2020, clean air advocacy group Philly Thrive organized a People’s Confirmation Action that invited people to the site of the former PES refinery on the same day that its sale was confirmed in bankruptcy court to Hilco Redevelopment Partners. Neighborhood residents and guests from other parts of Philly reflected on its 150-year polluting legacy, and PPEH was there to capture audio of people’s stories and help participants envision a future beyond refining by creating postcards from the year 2100. Photos: Evie Sorrell.

In a cross-disciplinary course I took with Beyond the Lab faculty leader and Penn professor Bethany Wiggin, “Liquid History and Floating Archives,” I began thinking with other students, artists, and researchers about how watery metaphors can be useful tools for thinking about anthropogenic climate change. That is, as rising tides put marshy Philadelphia neighborhoods such as Eastwick at greater risk of flooding, whose submerged histories do they also bring to the surface?

I would like to extend this kind of figurative thinking to the atmosphere—not the distant ozone layer in the stratosphere, or even the upper limits of the troposphere, but the swirling mass of gases and tiny particles contained within the six or seven feet above the ground that bounds our day-to-day existence. If, as anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas writes, dirt is “matter out of place,” then what can we say about dust, which in a way is just dirt, but airborne? How can we even define the boundaries of a place as nebulous and indeterminate as “the atmosphere?” Most importantly, how does the figure of dust (and smoke and clouds and exhaust and fog and haze) open up alternative ways of thinking about people, place, and air pollution?

Chokha, ca. 1813 (Mewar, India). Godhuli, ‘the Hour of Cowdust’. Watercolor on paper. Image: V&A Museum.

The environmental humanities points towards the limits and possibilities of language for helping us understand, process, and respond to the various intersecting crises facing our world today. In the edited collection of essays An Ecotopian Lexicon (which we have excitedly been discussing this summer at Beyond the Lab), postcolonial scholar Malcolm Sen proposes that we incorporate the Bengali word godhuli (গোধূলি) into our vocabulary because it makes space for “an ethics of place and a metaphysics of possibility” in a way that English doesn’t.1 As a portmanteau of the words “cow” (go) and “dust” (dhuli), ghoduli refers to the time of day immediately after sunset when “cows, with their hooves kicking up dust, return from pasture to their nightly refuge,” giving the atmosphere a hazy orange, burnt sienna, rusted iron glow. So unlike our word for “twilight,” godhuli locates this time of day on a grounded, terrestrial plane rather than “out there” in the atmosphere. It’s a word where not only light and dust converge, but also space and time.

Here is one passage in Sen’s gorgeous essay that really stuck out to me:

Photographic representation of godhuli, with a hazy orange sky in the background and the shadowy silhouettes of cows in the foreground.

It should not be surprising that the allure of godhuli’s optics, the slant of light rays traveling through dust that it translates into language, makes it a particularly auspicious time in Hinduism. Between the glare of the midday sun and the darkness of a rural night, godhuli, for Hindus, presents a window of opportunity for karya (work, action, or ceremonies, such as weddings). It offers a moment of opportunity to be made use of in the face of astrological hurdles and planetary maleficence. In Hinduism, godhuli thus offers a moment of hope, a way out when no other paths seem passable.

Image: BBC.

Now, I am not trying to romanticize things like smog—rather, I am using Malcolm Sen’s description of godhuli to search for silver (or perhaps bronze) linings in Philly’s urban dust clouds. Being able to sense the presence of airborne particulate matter with our own eyes can be a galvanizing moment in environmental justice struggles. For example, in 1948, a dense yellow fog descended upon a small city in western Pennsylvania named Donora… and stayed there for nearly a week, first causing houseplants to shrivel, then causing many residents to become nauseous, and finally leaving 26 dead and thousands sickened by the time the fog lifted on Halloween (in addition to who knows how many more in the days, weeks, and even years after that single infamous event). Donora residents were actually used to seeing the local steel mill and zinc works belch out smoke on a daily basis, but very few wanted to talk about their obvious ties to the prevalence of respiratory illness in town because they “could not afford to“—the mills employed half of Donora’s residents!

“Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora.” W. Michael McCabe, Regional Administrator, US EPA, 1998. Image: Donora Smog Museum.

Yet sensational stories—and sinister images—about the smog were making national headlines, and that sparked interest in what was then a totally new approach to public health research. Three months later a federal investigation was launched by the fledgling US Public Health Service, which eventually determined that the American Steel & Wire Plant and the Donora Zinc Works were emitting a combination of toxic gases, heavy metals and fine particulate matter that were poisoning young and old residents alike. Congress would not pass its first Clean Air Act until 1963, and the Environmental Protection Agency would not be established until 1970, but in many ways, the Donora Smog of 1948 could be seen as sparking the movement that would eventually lead to the government environmental protections that we have today. Somewhere amid the thick, dark haze of sulfuric acid that required street lamps blaring at noon to illuminate the town (and nurses applying respirators to help people breathe), a new vision for the state’s role in regulating heavy polluters was beginning to take shape.

Video interview by PPEH artist-in-residence Amy Balkin, via Climate Sensing and Data Storytelling.
By the same token, it seems like last year’s fiery, smoky eruption in South Philadelphia has done three things:
  1. It’s stirred up a lot of proverbial dust on a national scale amid renewed conversations about racism and environmental (in)justice.
  2. It’s provided a tangible graphic representation of the ongoing (but not necessarily sensational) violence that industrial capitalists and complicit politicians perpetuate against poor communities and people of color.
  3. It’s reminded the public that groups like Resident Action Committee 2 and Philly Thrive have been elaborating all-too-concrete visions for a more healthy and just Philadelphia as they weathered the hazy and elusive fumes of the refinery for generations.

Through a really spectacular disaster, the invisible was made visible.

Aerial footage of a falling smokestack at an old coal plant and the ensuing dust covering nearby homes in Little Village, Chicago. Video: Alejandro Reyes via YouTube.

Then, in a somewhat ironic twist, something similar happened this spring, after the COVID-19 pandemic brought me back to my hometown of Chicago to isolate with my family. One early April weekend, I woke up to see that Twitter was abuzz with news of a horrific demolition gone wrong on the Southwest Side. After neglecting to follow safe demolition procedures, the tall smokestack of the defunct coal-fired Crawford Generating Station came crashing down sideways against the heavy-metal contaminated earth, raising an enormous dust cloud of unidentified substances that filled the homes of primarily Latinx and Black families quarantining in nearby Little Village and North Lawndale. What made it even more frustrating was that local community groups had been organizing against the site’s newest owner for years… who was none other than Hilco Redevelopment Partners—the same firm now in charge of remediating and redeveloping the PES refining complex in South Philly.

Naturally, this did not sit well with me. Were the communities of Grays Ferry and Point Breeze just in store for more of the same? It seemed like the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the neighborhood had become even darker. What else needed to be made visible? Could it happen nonviolently, without even more soot and smoke?

Beyond the Lab team member Alexandre Imbot installs a particulate sensor in South Philly as one of the first steps in creating a community air quality monitoring network. Image: Grace Boroughs.

However (in what I think is a true godhuli moment), a coalition of neighbors, caretakers, scientists, educators, and activists was is cultivating the necessary relationships to support the community’s future health during this time of great uncertainty.

Read more about it in Part II…


[1] Thank you, Meg, for bringing this entry in particular to my attention!

Published by Piotr Wojcik

Penn Urban Studies c/o 2020

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