The path to build a healing world in the shell of the unhealed
My favorite place in town is a Superfund site.
Last summer, I’d ride my bike past it all the time, surprised to see such a large open stretch of field and trees in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood in a town with a dire housing crisis. The gate on the chain link fence is always cracked open, but for some reason, I didn’t go in. I’m programmed to see fences as meaningful.
One day, a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long invited me to an event, and I said Yes, with no idea what the event even was. “Smudging Ceremony at the Barge Canal” was a series of individual words I knew the meaning of, but I couldn’t put the pieces together. We rode along Lake Champlain until we turned up to Pine Street, the late summer humidity making the air thicker, until, to my surprise, we arrived at the chain link fence. The gate was cracked open.
This time, we went inside.
The Pine Street Barge Canal used to be a thriving wetland. After European settlers colonized Abenaki land — now known as northwestern Vermont — Burlington became a major center of the lumber industry. In the 1800s, when boats sailed down from Canada with cheap lumber (also known as trees), the reigning lumber baron of the time dug out a canal, filled in the wetland, and opened up a lumber processing facility on the land.
In 1908, the land became the site of a coal gasification plant. After the plant closed down in the 60s, the remaining highly toxic materials were dumped on the land. Toxic coal tar began seeping out from the land into the surrounding waterways, encroaching on Lake Champlain, which is where Burlingtonians get our drinking water. In 1985, the EPA got involved. They removed the coal tar, capped the nearby pond, and put up a fence around the site.
Now, a property developer has bought a portion of the land with the intention of building a Nordic-style day spa — excuse me, “wellness social club.” In response, a group of remediation scientists, activists and community members formed to press the city and the developers to allow land the chance to actually heal. Not only could the Pine Street Barge Canal be properly remediated and restored, but the process of restoring the land could be…