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Waking up in America's most toxic city

It takes more than marketing to make a city smart. It takes planning, it takes a willingness to make hard, even expensive choices. You have to look beneath the surface, acknowledge the reality, and deal with it rationally. The state of denial is a very dirty place.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

Many Atlantans are shocked to wake up this morning and find we're America's most toxic metro area.

(That's the view from my porch, taken just a few minutes ago.)

But we are taking it with aplomb. "It's nice to be number one at something," said the guy tiling my new bathroom.

Where I live, five miles east of downtown, the idea seems preposterous. Atlanta is a city of trees. I can walk to dozens of restaurants and shops from my house. On weekends the streets are filled with bicycles. There's a train at the corner that can whisk me straight to the Airport in less than an hour and, from there, to anywhere in the world.

But that's the thing about the "new toxicity." It's hidden.  Forbes says we have 58 Superfund sites, and 277 major polluters, that our air quality ranks with Rhode Island and Milwaukee.

There is a reason for this. Atlanta prides itself on drawing in businesses from outside. The deal only has to look good to the CEO coming in, and only in the short term.

A generation ago that meant attracting auto plants and and cheap electricity from burning coal. Today it means tax breaks for corporate offices. In both cases it means there's nothing to stop pollution from happening, and no money to clean it up.

Many of our Superfund sites are small, and some have doubtless been cleaned up. Among those listed by health consultant Jonathan Campbell is 1784 North Decatur Road, two miles from my house, which is listed as an "Automotive Research Center." It's now a handsome academic building at Emory University (right).

Others are simply abandoned, like 3285 Oakcliff Road NW, near the intersection of I-20 and I-285. Google's satellite map shows a row of squares where warehouses once were.

The company listed as owning the lot, ABC Compounding, now distributes its cleaning products from a strip mall in Morrow, 10 miles south of the city. Out of sight means out of mind.

Some sites are owned by big outfits, like General Motors, Owens-Illinois, and Delta Airlines. But most are like the two I just mentioned, small, maybe remediated, maybe forgotten.

The bigger problem is how we make our electricity. Coal. It's not clean. The Scherer power plant, south of the city, is the single biggest source of CO2 in the U.S. Two other plants are in the top 50. There is no pressure to change because electric rates are low. That's one of the things that attracts businesses.

Then there is the traffic, which is legendary. Outside the city there is almost no mass transit, and urban planning is considered Communist. Houston is better --at least there you have alternate routes. And don't get me started on parks. Atlanta is sadly lacking in public spaces. That's why people here hate density.

Atlanta, in sum, is all about growth, not about paying for it. We let our children and grandchildren do that.

It takes more than marketing to make a city smart. It takes planning, it takes a willingness to make hard, even expensive choices. You have to look beneath the surface, acknowledge the reality, and deal with it rationally.

The state of denial is a very dirty place.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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