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Martin Melosi

INTERVIEWEE: Marty Melosi (MM)
DATE: February 28, 2008
LOCATION: Houston, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Jennifer Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2421 and 2422

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s February 28th, 2008. We’re in Houston. And we’re at the home of Marty Melosi who is a environmental historian, and director of the Center for Pal—Public History at the University of Houston where he’s also Professor of History and has taught since 1984. And I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your work and your life. So thanks very much.
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MM: Thanks, David.
DT: I thought we might start with, you know, your younger days, maybe if there were any sort of childhood experiences, or times when you were growing up that might have tipped you off to an interest in the environment, and to environmental history.
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MM: If I can think back that far. I—I grew up in Northern California in San Jose in the Bay Area, and stayed there until high school. Then I went to Montana s—for college. I was there until ’71, and my wife and I, Caroline, moved to Austin to work on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas. And we’ve been in Texas for thirty-six years now. And I think that my formal connection to environmental issues and environmental history began at the University of Texas about 1971. But I think the moving around, and also living in very different environments, made me kind of sensitive to the variety of—of environmental conditions in which one finds himself. So I think ultimately had a—a big effect on me, although my focus quickly turned to cities. And that’s how I really got interested in the—in the subject through a seminar
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where the professor was talking about how dirty nineteenth century American cities were. And the following semester—this was in the spring of ’72—I wrote a paper on solid waste issues because I felt that was a way to kind of understand what it was like to live in—in cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And I also felt that it was a way to kind of understand how people thought about their environment, to look at something that was kind of mundane every day. We all have to deal with waste. And, you know, how do people treat it, how do they confront it, how do they dispose of it? And so it was a very, very simple and kind of a mundane start to what I was interested in—in looking at. And from there, it led me to think about other forms of urban pollution, noise and smoke, and—and water pollution, and so forth. And it kind of spun out of control after that time, and I started thinking more broadly about city growth and urban issues. And that became kind of the focus of my research, from that point on until the present.
DT: And it sounds like also just to I guess making context for it, early 70’s you got the passage of a lot of national environmental laws—the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act. Were those part of the interplay in why you might have been interested in the historical aspects to environmental protection?
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MM: I think that the work kind of resonated within that environment. That is, it was th—it was a time when people were receptive to start thinking about environmental issues more broadly than wilderness or response to nature. Not that I didn’t see those things as important, but I think that given the—the years in Washington, certainly beginning in the mid ‘60s with the Johnson Administration and—and moving forward, key changes in our environmental thinking, like the Wilderness Act of ’64, but then the Water and—and—and Air Acts e—NEPA, all the rest—this was on kind of the front—the—the front page of our thinking about the environment. So I think it bega—and my work (?) playoff of that, and interest in what I was doing came out of a broader interest in the environment that was now becoming a little bit more national.
DT: And was there also an interest among a coterie of—of other graduate students at the time that—that also shared your interest in environmental history?
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MM: Yeah. It was quite surprising because really the University of Texas had not developed any kind of a focus in this area. Very few places had. The early ‘70s was really kind of the genesis of the environmental history discipline in the United States. But there were two or three of us, some—some of the students were working in European History, and others in U.S. History. And I had a professor at the University of Texas, H. (?) Morgan, who went off to Oklahoma that year, actually, who got me started in thinking about these issues. And another colleague, Ray Smiler, who was working on noise, and a guy named Bill Trubrock, who now teaches at the University of Maine, who worked on the Netherlands and the Medieval Period looking at water issues. So we knew each other, and it—we kind of played off each other a bit.
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Morgan was very, very important in kind of stimulating my academic interest in the subject. And then very quickly after that, although I—I continued my dissertation work in the very traditional field of Diplomatic History, I finished that dissertation in 1975, in the back of my mind was the desire to get back to environmental topics. And my first job was at Texas A&M University, and I think it gave me an opportunity there, given my interest in cities, given my interest in technology and engineering, to start thinking about these issues more fully. And then I contacted a senior colleague at Carnegie Mellon named Joel Tarr, who was writing on wastewater, water issues, and so forth, and we began a relationship that exists to this day. We are the closest of colleagues, and I think professionally we tend to be joined at the hip, between my
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work on solid waste and—and water, and his work on water and—and—and wastewater. And he mentored me through my early years. He’s about twelve years older than I am. But that relationship has—has matured as our—as the years have gone by. One curious thing about my relation with Joel is the—the first contact I made with him was, he had published an article with the title “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” Well, I had also published an article with the same title. And being a rather brash graduate student, I wrote him and said how dare you take my title. And, you know, he was—to this day he remembers that I was so forward to do that. But it be—it led to a—a—a—a very important collaboration in my career. And we went for several years reading papers at conferences, and talking about these issues, and
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actually getting very little attention. We were—we were very fortunate that the American Society for Environmental History, which was very new in the—in the early ‘70s, welcomed us with open arms. But we would go to the conferences, have a session with maybe five people in the audience. That happened for several years. So what we were doing in trying to reorient this young field to look at industrialization and urbanization, took quite a while. But we—we persevered and continued to do it. And the other thing that I learned from Joel, and I think I had a inclination to do anyhow, was to reach out beyond the academic world. Joel had collaborated with geographers at the Carnegie Mellon, but also with engineers and people—p—and a range of policymakers in—in bringing to their attention the significance of these issues, and how history was a wonderful tool for understanding
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long traditions, looking at how history set a context for understanding these—these problems. And I was inclined to think the same way, and—and I think Joel just kind of reinforced that in me, so that I spent a great deal of time talking to people and working with people outside of the academic world. And it made a lot of sense, because if you want to learn about how a sanitary landfill operates, you talk to people that build them. And so I learned a great deal from them, and in return, helped to provide a—a—an avenue for understanding the significance of history. So it was a—it—at the time, it was just a very small interest that blossomed. But of course, as we did more research in this area and began to teach courses of this kind, you begin to realize the extraordinary significance of—of a whole wide range of environmental issues. And that the—this was something that I wanted to continue for my life, because I felt it was—w—was important.
DT: Maybe you can elaborate a little bit about that. I—I think it’d be interesting for you tell us how environmental history made a niche for itself among maybe some of its older siblings, whether it’s political history, military history, economic history, that, you know, may be more traditional.
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MM: Yeah. That’s—that’s a very good point. The—the genesis of the field, the f—kind of the formal field, develops ironically in the United States. Now this does not mean there weren’t academics or s—or studies that were done other places that all came later. Certainly there were earlier works coming out of Europe and other parts of the world. But in the United States the field formed in a—in a formal way at kind of a academic identity within the universities that had national organization. And again, I say that’s ironic because, you know, the greatest polluter in the world, the United States, is the country that produces this environmental history field. And it really began as a focus on kind of Western development, conservation, looking at the wilderness, looking at nature, and we kind of helped to—to fuse onto to that a b—kind of a broader interest in—in cities. And it really grows out of a—out of the ‘60s. The—the—the turmoil and excitement of the ‘60s—I’m a child of the ‘60s—and
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th—opening up a whole range of topics that had been, if not ignored, just not thought about. So if you look at the—the—the ‘60s, and you look at the field of history in particular, studies on race, gender, class, you know, African American history certainly would—would become Mexican-American or Chicano—Chicano history, women’s history, even—even gay and lesbian history ultimately, these are topics that I wouldn’t say were taboo, but they were topics that were connected in some way to the kind of political zeitgeist of the 1960’s. And this was true about environmental history. That if you look at the early practitioners, and even to this day I think it’s true, what you see, if you scratch a little bel—below the surface, are advocates—environmental advocates who had kind of strong kind of political feelings about the environment. I think that’s broadened in a way that we have incorporated
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a wider range of people with more voices, which I think is absolutely essential within an academic setting. But it was that k—that kind of a nurturing period that got people thinking about social issues, grassroots questions, basic kind of cultural issues that—that brought this to life. And so that’s where it really begins to take shape in the United States.
DT: Maybe you can tell us how this—this new discipline starts to find its way into academics, and—and when you were teaching both at Texas A&M, and then later at the University of Houston where you started in 1984, maybe you can give us some examples of the kind of courses you were offering, and the sort of interest and reaction you were getting from your students.
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MM: Yeah, I think that the—that the environment, as an issue, is an extraordinary broa—(?) extraordinarily broad one. What you’re dealing fundamentally is the relationship between humans and their physical world. And this allows you to kind of reorient your thinking about politics, economics, international affairs, almost anything when you—when you see that connection. Now, to be perfectly fair, historians tend to be kind of stodgy. And it was the geographers, the sociologists, even in the s—in the natural sciences to some degree, ecologists, they were thinking about a lot of these issues before we were. And th—it’s—it’s only fair to—to recognize it. We were kind of late-comers to this. But once—I think as stories begin to grasp the—the broad significance of this topic, then how do you apply it,
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you know, to the classroom? Well, the first way I think that a lot of us did it was looking at politics, looking at the environmental movement, looking at kind of the—the regulatory apparatus that would grow naturally out of our study of city—city government, national government, state government, and institutional connections, and (?) kind of grassroots reform activity. And so it was not surprising to see a lot of the early work dealing with the kind of period of—of major reform in the United States in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, that the Teddy Roosevelts of the world, the Gifford Pinchots, the John Muirs who has been out there beginning to kind of articulate environmental issues. So early courses tended to have that kind of focus. In my case, most everything came through my interest in the city. So my Urban History classes would be infused with a number of environmental issues,
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because I thought they were important to add to a traditional understanding of—of politics, economics, social movements, neighborhoods, class, that kind of thing. And then that evolved into courses that dealt with urban technology. Since I had been working on solid waste questions, I began to ask, you know, what kind of city services secure public health? What kind of city services allow cities to continue to grow, and turn them from being kind of open sewers to being livable environments? And so those were questions that I was interested in, and I would find my courses revolving that kind of a focus. And I also taught courses on energy. And—and again, you’re strongly influenced by what’s around you. And in the mid ‘70s with the energy crisis, there’s the convergence of energy and environmental issues certainly, but also the question of depletion of resources, not unlike, you know, we’re seeing today. And my need to talk about energy from the perspective of—of
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the—the view of limited resources. And so I taught courses on energy history and its relation to industrial development. And now I’m—for the last several years, I’ve taught a course on atomic energy which fuses environmental, commercial, and international questions, looking at atomic energy as a window to understand the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. And then a—one other slight deviation was, when I came to Houston I helped to put together what became known as the Institute for Public History, which is now the Center for Public History. And my task was to train students in the field of public history, that is, utilizing history for the public good, to train students to use their historical skills in the community, and at the same time to promote the study of history in the community, try to nurture relations with neighborhoods, with various institutions, to look at their own history,
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to study their own past, to collect and preserve their history. And a big component of that was environmental issues. Since that’s what I did, that’s what I knew, that’s what I felt comfortable with. It filled a need, you know, for me to bring what we knew outside of the university into the community.
DT: And what sort of reaction did you get from the students? Did—I mean did your courses tend to get formed by this sort of interest that your students had? Or, you know, is it sort of an interactive play there?
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MM: Yeah. I think it always ultimately is interactive. I—I teach a lot of graduate students. That’s primarily what I do at the University of Houston. When I was at Texas A&M I taught great survey classes. And I like both. It just that my primary responsibility is here is training graduate students. So part of it had to do with exposing them to a field of history that had much broader implications than they might have thought. That is they might be interested in looking at questions of race, kind of a common theme in—in—in historical curriculum. They might not have thought about looking at race in relation to the environment, looking at environmental justice issues, for example. So what we often try to do is to kind of fuse whatever interest they had with an environmental perspective. So we’re spending a lot of time now training students in the convergence of energy issues and
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environmental issues. But I think you have to have some give and take. I don’t—I don’t think that there’s much value as a teacher in simply imposing your interest on somebody else. You can inspire somebody, but at the time I think you have to try to draw out of them what they’re interested in, and if—if possible, to—to have a dialogue in how these things connect. And as a result, we have a very healthy number of students that are interested in environmental history. It’s taken a long time. The field was a very, very small one, and the—the change I think came with the—the public interest in a lot of the work that some very key people in the field were doing. Looking at a lot of fundamental issues on, for example, how we look at wilderness, how wilderness is constructed by our own kind of cultural views, people that take on a variety of topics. Certainly, the environmental movement or—or big
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Controversies—Hetch Hetchy controversy in the past, but even more current issues on the—the—the snail darter and—and different issues about endangered species, for example. So as these issues—the s—s—historical issues began to connect with contemporary environmental issues, the field began to get more play and began to become more legitimate within an academic setting. But I think the popularity grew because it was connecting to something that was very much tied to the—the national discourse. And what’s happened recently, and this is in the last ten years or so, is this is global. I spend probably as much of my time when I’m doing my academic work outside of the United States as I do in the United States. And that’s really fascinating. I—I first went to France, and then Scandinavia, Wester—West—the remaining countries in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, China now, Australia, Israel,
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in places where our work resonated. Now, you can’t take an American example and translate into another country wholesaling. But all countries have waste problems. All countries have water problems. All countries have sewage problems. So these bonds and connections become really, really important. And I should say, it goes the other way as well. That dealing with me—these fundamental environmental issues are significant on a local level, and significant within a s—a—a regional and a state level. So I—I don’t think we try to put aside the importance a—that our work might have for the City of Houston, the Houston experience, the larger regional interest, certainly in the—in East Texas connecting to Galveston and Galveston Bay, and then
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more broadly even within the state itself. So I—I think you take this—we’ve taken it in, you know, the macro level, and—I wouldn’t call it the ma—micro level, we’d—we take it in both directions, the local el—issues are—are equally significant. So it’s been exciting to see the growth of—of the field and the interest in it. And I’m not saying that we’re on everybody’s lips, and that every time you open the front page there’s an issue, but I do think the connection to energy questions, to resource questions, all those basic issues that come up time and time again, certainly global warming as a—as a g—gigantic issue today, reinforce the value of understanding the past as a way of opening a window to the present and the future.
DT: When we left off, we were talking about your teaching at the Texas A&M and—and the University of Houston. And my understanding is that a lot of your teaching is very interwoven with your research and writing. And I was hoping that you might be able to help us understand what you’ve been thinking and writing about, maybe through the context of—of lens of looking at your work on urban history, particularly public services for water and wastewater, flooding, and those sorts of issues. And maybe use Houston is a case study.
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MM: Yeah, I can do that. The—s—the core of my research and its relationship to my teaching deals with city service delivery, primar—first, solid waste, because I was known for years as the garbage historian. And I’ve finally, I think, gotten over that. But I—I also studied water supply issues and wastewater issues. And I’ve done it on the national scale. The most important book I did on the subject was called The Sanitary City, which looked at these issues from the colonial period in the United States until the present, the intersection of those services in American cities over that long time span. But the—the—the work that really helped to clarify to me the importance of these services really began with Houston, and I’ve done some work on looking at the evolution of—of these services in Houston. I had a number of questions I wanted to ask. One of them was, was Houston unique? That is, was it
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doing something very different from the rest of the county, because we see Houston as this entrepreneurial city, you know, dominated by kind of private business, and so forth and so on. And one question I wanted to ask is, does that—is that reflected in municipal government decisions to supply necessary services? The short answer to that is no, because in some respects, the evolution of the water, wastewater, and solid waste programs in Houston kind of mirror what’s going on nationally. Certainly, it was a younger city growing up in 1836, and remaining relatively small until World War II, or maybe a little before, and so it kind of fell into that middling category that a lot of cities, not only in the south, but throughout the country’s—country fell into. But Houston also had some rather unique characteristics which were—are very interesting in understanding its history, and understanding the history of these services. For example, in water supply, Houston was the largest city
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in the United States that relied almost exclusively on groundwater. Houston sits on top of two or three major aquifers. And until World War II, Houston drew most of its supply for its—for the city from wells. And many of them were city wells, some of them were private wells. The transition came during the war when the defense industry began to—to grow along the Ship Channel, and the federal government began to put pressure on the city to develop new sources of water supply to service the defense industry, the refineries, certainly in the petrochemical industry that was there. And so actually, through outside pressure, and through the growth of its industrial economy, the city moved to beginning to develop water supply on the San Jacinto, and that broadened into other water courses as well. And what this did was to kind of shift the—the focus of water supply development away from the
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groundwater issues, which had one very positive effect, and that is it—it helped to stem the tide of subsidence. That is when—when the—the s—the surface soil will drop because of the evacuation of water from the underground sources. And since Houston sits on gumbo soil, once that water was taken out of the wells, those hollow places just collapsed and the city began to drop. So that was a—a very, very severe problem for Houston. Certainly it in—influenced flooding issues, led to kind of salt water intrusion into—into the soil underneath Houston. So the benefit of going to groundwater certainly was to reduce subsidence, at least on the eastern part of the United States—of Te—of Houston. The—the other issue, which is also rather significant, is that what happened to Houston happened other places. That is, in tapping the San Jacinto River, it went beyond the city limits, which raises the question of com—competition for a resource and also an encroachment of the city
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on the regional neighbors, not only along the periphery, the exterritorial jurisdiction, but going north from Houston, at this point, into communities that were at the—the—the focal point of—of the water that they wanted. And so this—this raises a very, very significant issue in terms of—of who controls a resource and why. The other end of it, of course, is the connection of that water system to the Gulf. And certainly, every time that you increase water use, you also are increasing wastewater use. And so you’re having a lot of—of waste materials getting into the—into the water system and moving its way among other places into the bay. So the uniqueness of the water system in Houston has a real impact on its history. Its wastewater system was not so unique. But in the early years, what you would see in the nineteenth century is mostly a combined sewer. There was a—a big single pipe, and in some cases, separate sewers, one that carried a small sa—sanitary waste,
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and then usually surface drainage. And what I was looking in this period was why did the city not invest in—in storm water drainage because we look at the serious of—of flooding, one of the things that tends to reduce the impact of flooding is to have a decent way for the water to flow through storm water systems. And ultimately, the—the city would begin to develop underground ways of diverting its storm water, but for the longest time, relied on the bayous, relied on kind of typical surface dra—surface drainage. Again, the other issue, and—and this is where historians try to make interesting connections, is the—the disparity between who got the sewers and who didn’t. And if you started looking at the old central portions of the city in the old wards, you’d find that there were a lower percentage of sewers per
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person than there were in the new suburban areas. And what this tells you again is the disparity between the more affluent and the less affluent, white and black, white and brown, so on and so forth. So it—this helped to give us kind of insight into something other than service delivery. In the case of waste, of—of—of solid waste, Houston was relying for a substantially long time on incineration. And part of the reason was that being in the—in southeast Texas, and in a part of the country that has a subtropical climate, burning the waste was a way of getting rid of putrifiable waste more easily rather than land-filling it or—or dumping it. But in doing that, the incinerators created alternative problems of pollution—smoke—and also the siting of these plants took place in poor neighborhoods or black neighborhoods almost to a ratio of one-to-one. And so again, you have kind of a social consequence of a
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service delivery system, and it took a number of years before the city abandoned its emphasis on incinerators—excuse me—and moved to—to landfill, which becomes a more typical means of disposal in the United States after 1945. So the delivery of the services tells a great deal about the priority the city had for environmental services, its impact on the culture and—and—and social fabric of the city, political decision-making, and environmental implications. So Houston is a—a very wonderful kind of a case. And also, I think it’s important that we understand these issues as citizens of Houston, as citizens of East Texas, to really understand what happens when you have substantial growth, the kind of growth that—that we have in Houston, how that impacts a region. And that can be replicated and duplicated in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth. One of the not so original ideas that we
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need to—got to keep in mind is that Texas, certainly for the twentieth century, is an urban state. It is a state dominated by its cities. And to think of it in the old frontier terms of—of—of the—of the Webb era, when talking about the—the—the Great Texas Frontier, is to miss the point that as an urban state, the kinds of environmental issues that are significant oftentimes are connected to that—that urban explosion that takes place in twentieth century Texas.
DT: I guess you’re referring to Charles Prescott Webb?
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MM: Walter Prescott Webb, yeah, yeah.
DT: Oh—oh, yeah. One of the things I thought was interesting about the history of some of these public services is that at various points in their history they’ve actually been provided by private concerns. And I as wondering if you could talk about maybe the history of—of water and of solid waste, and how some, you know, private firms were involved in that in Houston’s history.
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MM: Yeah. In Houston’s history, and this is—Houston’s history in many ways mirrors the—the national norm. And that is that you begin with individuals being responsible for getting water any way they can. A bucket in the bayou. You know, or going down to a local stream, digging their own well. And then we move to a private franchise where a company comes in and gets the authority from the city to provide water. And that’s what happens in Houston. The first water supply system was—was private. But it—by late in the nineteenth century, the system becomes a public system. And this is very typical in the United States overall. That trend occurred for a number of reasons. One, as cities began to get larger, they began to demand more control of their own affairs. And in the nineteenth century, in most cases, most of the city services that were provided came via the—the state legislature. And the reason was that the cities did not have their own rev—revenue
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streams. And so as cities began to get larger, they began to demand—home rule began to demand control over their own revenue the ability to tax, the a—the ability to—to set bond issues. And once that ability came along, they wanted to control services, especially those that have revenue potential. And water has revenue potential more than almost any other service imaginable. Now, what cities went—went along to say, and this is true with Houston as it is in other parts of the country is, these private countries—companies are not doing their job. They’re corrupt, they’re not delivering services. The reality is that the cities often felt there was advantage to control the service. One other reason, other than the kind of economic issue, has to do with public health. And that is that the public health of a city is dependent upon a pure water supply, among other things. And so to make sure that
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that water supply was safe, there was a great demand to move in the direction of kind of public service. And the city felt that they could be a better watchdog over the—the health of the city that way. So this trend in water in the United States has continued up until the recent present. Privatization of water has become a big issue again. In the world, it’s a—a—a very large issue. In the United States it is still kind of a token issue. Maybe only five percent of the water supply systems are private. But as cities become more strapped for income, they begin to reprioritize their—their services. And as water becomes more expensive to provide, then the option of turning over the running of a water system to a private company, in many cases a—a multinational company, becomes more appealing. Now that change has not been so dramatic in the United States, but it’s—has been dramatic in other parts of the world. In the case of solid waste, which also began as kind of personal and private,
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which was also true in Houston, franchised for collection and disposal, that is a service that is more rapidly privatized in the last fifty years than any service largely because the—the cities could see new re—no revenue-generating capacity for solid waste collection or disposal, or they did—they didn’t see very much, and were more willing to consider an alternative. And so what—what happened, beginning in the 1960’s or so l—‘70s was, little by little the turning over of collection routes for businesses to private companies, eventually the—the control and th—and building of disposal sites, and the city would maintain kind of its residential collection system. But even that’s changed more recently. So what you find is a lot more public-private
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partnerships in the United States. And this is true in Houston as well. So in that sense, Houston has not been unusual. It’s been r—it’s been very typical. Sewage has remained primarily a public service because it—it is not intri—intimately connected to water supply. Sewer systems developed at a different period in time than water systems. That seems kind of counterintuitive, because they should develop together. But they didn’t. And so the city has a harder time seeing sewage become a kind of a private dominated service because it doesn’t have the revenue-generating capacity that water supply has. And so that’s remained more of a public service for years of—at least for the foreseeable future. So in this case, the Houston experience is interesting because it reinforces what I think we understand about—about these issues. That they are not bound by region, they are—they are bound by
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circumstance. And you have to kind of look at the circumstances to see what the physical strength of a city is when it grows, so on and so forth. Houston’s problems, whi—which are—are indeed unique, have to do with its incredible growth and its sprawl. You’re talking a city of, what, six hundred and thirty-seven square miles, you’re talking about a population in the region of about four million spread over a very large area, very low density. This creates a real problem for service delivery. Solid waste disposal works well under conditions of high density. And so when you have diffuse population, that becomes a—a—a real, real problem. And same with water supply. You have a very, very large area demanding different needs, different densities, and so forth. And so Houston—Houston’s growth, which is—was considered to be its ally for a number of years, is probably its—its enemy to some people today because of the in—inability to provide adequate services over a wide
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ranging area, let alone those areas along its periphery that are not incorporated, that do not get city services, that are dependent on either private suppliers or—or their own activities themselves. And the city is not terribly interested in providing services in an area that doesn’t pay taxes. So once an area does grow and mature along the periphery, and proves that it can be a—a—a generator of taxes, the city would be more likely to annex it. So we have a lot of kind of precarious neighborhoods along the—the periphery, especially those to the east that sit in the flood plain and are suffering, not only from the lack of services, but potential risks from—from flooding, and—and so forth.
DT: Maybe you can help us understand a couple of things. One is this interesting connection between public and private provision of services, and also the—the low-density sprawl of—of—of Houston. And—and the, I guess, window under that that I was thinking you might be able to talk about was the MUDs, the municipal utility districts, and—and the way they provided both water and sewerage to a lot of these outlying communities, and then later on had operational problems and got it annexed, and you know, pulled into a regional system. But what’s the story there?
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MM: Well, first of all, if you look at Houston’s growth, the reason w—you know, why does it grow? Why does it grow so rapidly? There are several reasons why. There is a—a—a—a traditional look at technology, that is cheap oil made it easier to sh—shift the transportation system to the automobile. If we’re looking at a twentieth century reason, certainly, oi—Houston’s role in the—in the petroleum industry, the regional dominance in production of energy produced cheap oil. I moved to Austin in 1971, I was upset if I had to pay twenty-five cents a gallon for gasoline, you know. Times have changed. That encouraged people to live at a distance from work. And you build a—a system that reinforces the automobile as a primary transportation source. The other thing, of course, is available land. Houston is not hemmed in, and had not been hemmed in throughout its whole
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history, with other incorporated areas. The only one that’s of any significance early on is Pasadena to the southeast. But the rest of the areas around Houston were either unincorporated or small town. And Houston’s ability to expand had a lot to do with a very liberal state annexation law that helped all cities in the state in 1960’s that gave the city a virtual free reign over its—its periphery. And so Houston is able to kind of bank thirty percent of its total area for future annexation. And no other city can compete with that. Now if you’re—if you’re in Dallas or Fort Worth that had been kind of hemmed in a little bit, San Antonio to a lesser degree, Austin to a lesser degree, that kind of rapid physical growth was not as possible as it was in Houston, certainly not to the scale that Houston had. So you have a thriving
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economy, a—a cheap transportation system, a willingness to invest in—in roads, cheap and available land, all these things, and jobs, and you start pouring people in from all over the country and all over the world, you create a situation where a central authority of government is not as effective, and in controlling that growth, as it is in a—either with a partnership with the private sector, or an independent private sector. So realtors, speculators of all kinds, other businesses that could bring resources and wealth to the city were seen as an advantage. And this allowed them, the city to grow in the way it did. So it’s not systematic. This is what sprawl—the problem of sprawl is. It’s not systematic growth. You have gaps between one area and another, and those—those gaps create a number of different—a different problem, some of them environmental, some of them economic. So the—the city itself, and its kind of—its political will was shaped largely by a number of different
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extraneous forces, economic being part of it. And there are environmental reasons as well. I mean Houston, it doesn’t have any mountains. There isn’t (?)—hemming it in. And so as part of the kind of the—the—the—the—the Gulf Coast e—ecosystem, it—it really wasn’t restrained by—by that growth. And the—the political history of the state, certainly since reconstruction, kind of favored kind of laissez faire behavior, kind of favored private sector development, and all of these things kind of converged to create a situation where the private sector can come to dominate a number of different activities. And again, I find it almost curious in a way that you do have some public services that are typical for other parts of the nation developing in Houston. But I think in those cases, maybe most people would agree that water supply, wastewater, highways, roads, the basic things had to be—had to be in place in order to attract more industry to serve the existing population, and so forth. So
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I—I do think that you have to, as historians try to do, think about the big picture, think about all the elements that influence the city to understand some of these—some of these questions.
DT: And maybe you can understand, and help us understand the—the—this issue with the municipal utility districts.
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MM: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t talk about that yet.
DT: And—and how they were structured, and how, you know, a small group of private citizens could create a quasi government that could—a few bonds create a whole wastewater infrastructure.
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MM: Yeah. I—I think, interestingly, when the idea of a special district finally became articulated and—and became law in the State of Texas, seventy-five percent of those special districts can be found in the Houston area. And I think the simple answer is if you have a—a municipal government that sees itself providing only certain kinds of services, and is unwilling to provide services in areas that are unincorporated, and do not provide a substantial tax base, you open up an opportunity for alternative forms of governance. And again, when you’re talking about very large region of—and—and a—a—a—a big area, the—the MUDs [Municipal Utility Districts] and similar special districts kind of fill that—that—that gap because they aren’t strictly private, they are—they are public entities, but they are entities that have the responsibility for raising their own—their own revenue, and—and managing their own resources.
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Part of this has to do, also, that Houston kind of slops over several counties. It isn’t just in Harris County. And so once you begin to kind of—to impinge upon other jurisdictions, the question is, whose responsibility is it for providing water, wastewater, and so forth? So a—an—an intermediary step is to provide an alternative governmental mechanism that can do that that is not bound by a city charter or an ordinance, or not bound by coun—county—county rules in the strictest sense, and that can defy borders, jurisdictional borders. So I think that this becomes kind of a convenient tool for a place like Houston that has the unique qualities that it has. And—and it’s been—been replicated in other places. But I think that Houston, because of its expansiveness, because of its kind of jurisdictional connections, all those things lend itself ideally to producing a number of MUDs and—and seeing that as a good way to—to develop w—its services.
DT: I thought one way to understand how the public services in Houston have—have evolved is to maybe look at places where there have been gaps or (?) problems, shortcomings. And two occur to me. One is—is with providing drinking water from Lake Houston, Lake Conroe where the watershed isn’t protected. And the second would be trying to protect against flood—floods. And while we have Addix and Barker Reservoirs, a lot of other watersheds weren’t protected with detention or retention. And I was hoping you could talk about those two problems, and why they—they—they evolved here in—in Houston.
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MM: Big issues and—and—and, you know, trying to kind of simplify it is not easy. But I—I do think that if you look at the—the starting point of accessing Lake Houston and—and so forth, I think the presumption, maybe unfairly, was that this is a—a relatively pure water supply. And it—it didn’t probably take into account what was likely to happen in those regions, which was ultimately more growth and more runoff from urban areas and from agriculture, and—and so on. The—the lion’s share of that mon—that water for the longest period was diverted to the Ship Channel. If you look at the percentages, a very, very small percentage came to the City of Houston directly. Most of it was piped directly to the Ship Channel, or even south to Beaumont. And so I think that the—the demands for the water and the quality of the water w—were facing kind of different set of—of demands in those early years.
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Now, when you start diverting more of that water toward the city, then you have to go back and retrofit those existing water supplies, or the alternative is you treat it. You treat the water coming in. So like even on a—eh—any other place in the—in the world or in the country, the downstream city along a system of water use within a watershed often becomes the one responsible for the quality of its water going in. So one way the city could deal with this was to—to capture the water and—and then redistribute it through effective treatment in some—in some way. And also, when it—when it’s part of a partnership, which it was at Lake Houston and other locations, you have to get the kind of cooperation of the—of the whole group in order to provide the mechanism for the protection of—of the water supply. And I think those issues evolve later. So they’re—they’re not initially anticipated for a number
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of reasons that have to do with the timing of their use. And then it becomes also economic and political questions. Who is responsible? How do you divvy up that responsibility? What expectation do you have for the—for the water supply? On—on a funding issue, here you’re getting into the incredibly complex set of—of issues, because flooding is not generated from one single source, or is always very predictable in—in—in key ways. The city is prone to flooding. Why? Because it—there’s heavy rainfall that’s part of—of the—of the world. There is a lot of hard surfaces. So the more development there is, the more runoff, and the quicker the runoff. A bayou system that was depended upon to handle floodwater that is incapable either because of the tremendous amount of—of development, or the
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canalization that took place on those—on those bayous through the work of the—the Army Corps of Engineers, that essentially kind of exacerbated some of the problems of flooding. Subsidence, which is a very, very serious problems in most part of the city—so the city sits kind of in a bowl, sometimes below sea level, and can accumulate—accumulate the water. So you have all of those realities that influence flooding, and tremendous development. And then also, a policy in place that did not gear its infrastructure to support a—a system that could—that could deal with flooding. What you have then is dependence upon the road systems to ab—to take a certain percentage of rain. So you kind of calculate how much rain per hour is acceptable, and how much damage you’re willing to accept in neighborhoods in
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exchange for that. So it’s—it’s a—it’s a kind of a risk analysis kind of a thing. And then you kind of decide if the existing storm water sewers can—can help you, and you calculate to what degree these can be useful during certain events. And then either you kind of assume that the big events are not going to happen regularly, or if they do happen, then you just kind of rely on the private sector to deal with it. That is, insurance companies are going to pay the cost of these damages. So these—these tradeoffs were part of the decision-making process early on. Some of it had to do with the evolution of the infrastructure and the city growth, so that these things the city was changing incrementally, and the problem was becoming more serious as development began to—to grow, or it was a—a lack of understanding of the kinds of available options available, or in some cases, it was not giving it high priority because they felt that other things were more important. So today, when we start
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talking about detention ponds, we start looking at different ways of—of moving storm water, all different kinds of mechanisms for kind of early warning, and—and all those things. These are retrofitted on a system that is not easily changed. Economists call this path dependence. That is, the decisions you make early on are very difficult to change later on. And that’s part of what we have here. It’s not simply a question of technology, it’s a question of will. An earlier politic system did not place a high priority on providing those things that would exacerbate flooding. And then you get—you know, you get situations where even—even predictable events, or you think are predictable events, or you think you’ve done certain things to protect certain areas, get thrown out of the—out of the window when a—a rainstorm hits a part of town that you’re not expecting to hit, or there’s sheeting that takes place, and—and all of that. So some of it is that the task is very, very large
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and difficult to—to resolve, and even more so as the city begins to expand. Other has to do with just the—the—the lack of priority. And like I said, I think those—those things have changed, but we are still faced with the—critical problems. It’s very difficult to reverse subsidence. And once that’s happened, it’s very difficult then to tear up the neighborhoods and plant crops, you know, in west—in—well, the eastern and the western parts of Houston to get more permeability in the soil. You know, once you’ve done these other things, taking the reverse steps is even—even more difficult. And that’s one of the issues that I’m profoundly interested in and I talk about regularly, not only for Houston, but other parts of the world, and that is the question of early decision-making, and the historical path that these decisions make toward the present. And it’s—it’s a—a valuable issue to—to discuss with policymakers, because one has to ask a number of different questions about the choices that are made and what options may be available. And I think historians can
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be very, very useful in showing the predicaments that are produced by certain kinds of decision-making, and why one has to think of contingency, and think of alternatives, and—and seriously give thought to moving in different directions, thinking outside of the box, and so forth.
DT: Let me ask you some more questions, if you don’t mind, about the relationship of—of the municipal government here in Houston to I guess sort of private entities, in particular, industry on the—on the east side. And I think that you mentioned this earlier and how the federal government forced the—the city to be more proactive by getting surface water in order to provide water to—to industries along the Ship Channel. I guess on the flipside of that, some of the wastewater that’s generated by those industries along the Ship Channel was threatening the operation of a lot of the municipal systems and their ability to treat things that—that had solvents and, you know, contaminants in there. Could you talk about how the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority got started, and—and as a way to try and deal with some of those—those problems?
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MM: Yeah. I think the—the—the larger—this is a, again, a—a—a chronic issue that’s—that’s national in scale. It was not unusual for industries, small and large, to rely on municipal sewer systems for dumping of—of their waste. The—a—a typical way to deal with this, and which is I think more—more typical since the late 1970’s, was to develop a regulatory apparatus at the state level, and ultimately the federal level, that would turn around then and mandate change at the local level. So if—if you’re changing the—the federal laws around Clean Water Act, and so forth, one of the things that might happen is the state would implement a program based upon kind of new regs at the federal level. Or in some cases, state regulations influence national policy. We look at air pollution issues in California as kind of setting the table for federal regulations in terms of ambient emissions from automobiles. So I—I think that’s one thing that you can see happening. Now an intervening body like
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kind of like the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority operates on a—on a different level. That is you’re—it’s a—it’s public-private partnership. And in a place like Houston, again, going back to the traditions of the reconstruction, going back to the—the—the reliance on kind of private sector initiatives, relying in some cases on—on good connection between the public and the private, or in some cases, ignoring whatever the private sector’s doing altogether, which also happens, I think creating that kind of an authority suited kind of the political environment of a place like Houston more than enforcing really, really rigorous antipollution laws. And the—I guess the question is, you know, would they do it? And would they try to confront industries that mean so much to the economy? And, you know, the answer to that is probably not. So I think the idea of moving to some kind of a authority that would—
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would not have the same kind of—or create the same kind of tension that the—that a set of public laws might create seem to be the—a—a potential solution. The question with any authority of this kind is, you know, where—where does their emphasis lie? That is, is it something to—dominated by the industry itself that’s going to look at kind of slow change over time and try to avoid any kind of severe transformation of its practices? Or is it going to really kind of singularly try to address those issues in—in some way? They—they’re still going to be constrained by law. That is, it—obviously, any changes that—that apply to what you can dump into the—into the Gulf of Mexico, and so forth, is going to have to be taken into account. But I think that the approach is consistent with what we’ve seen in Houston’s history as a way of kind of getting at some of these issues. In many cases, Houston is still very, very,
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very far behind in r—in dealing with its pollution issues. Certainly, air pollution is a good example. There’s been a lot of stalling going on in this community for quite a long time for compliance. Again, to say that it’s the only place in the country that does that is—is not fair. But indeed, the—the—the influence and significance of—of these—of the industries that we—or know are—are dominant is—is r—is really significant to the changes that are taking place. It’s interesting, though, and this is somewhat of a sidebar, but—but in some cases, the—the things that will create change don’t seem to be the most obvious ones. They don’t seem to be connected to traditional patterns of regulation. For example, the major employer of Houston is medicine. If you added up all the jobs and all the money that’s being generated from the medical center and related industry, this is the major employer of the city. No longer is it natural gas and—and—and oil. Not to say those are not significant.
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But as you begin to change your economic base, you begin to change their environmental impacts on the community. The oil industry had a tremendous impact on Houston, not only in the generation of capital, but also in the demands that these industries had on infrastructure. The water supply system is a really good example. Why do we have that surface water? Because you have the Ship Channel industries that needed it. Why do you have more roads, better railroad system, so on and so forth? Because of industry demand. Or in an earlier era, agricultural demand. Why do you have an inordinately high rate of pollution? Because you have an industry that’s stimulated cheap oil, and you have automobiles that—that produced all kinds of—of emissions. And so there are a number of different ways in which kind of industrial growth, urban growth get connected. You change that base, and you
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change that relationship. Great examples of that would be with cities like Pittsburg. What was Pittsburg known for in the early twentieth century? The Smoky City. And how would you like to be on the—on the—on the—on the city government trying to promote the virtues of—of Pittsburg when it was know as The Smoky City? Y—you know, the steel industries dies in Pittsburg. This creates certainly economic hardship for the city and for the citizens, but h—but Pittsburg is not the same city it was. It is not a smoky city anymore, it’s a very livable city. Very high ratio of—of green space to population, a l—a lot of kind of cultural institutions that were kind of moved to Pittsburg. So it—it made a big change. And if you look at, for example, to talk about smoke just for a second—I’m a historian, I can’t help but deal with these kind of delicious issues—in 1912, almost every city in the United States of any consequence had an anti-smoke ordinance. But the skies were still smoky. So St.
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Louis, Pittsburg, New York, any place that burned bituminous coal particular, had a smoke problem. And they tried to regulate against it, they tried to educate people about burning their coal more efficiently at home, they tried to work with the industries, they tried to—to force industries to change, nothing seemed to work. The one thing that finally worked was coal…
[End of Reel 2421]
DT: When we left off before, we were talking about the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority. And it—it seems like there are lots more (?) to talk about regarding how industry dealt with its waste in the Houston area. And I as hoping that you could talk about some of the history of the—the land farms, and the deep well injection systems, and some of the industrial waste sites which later became Superfund sites. Perhaps you could tell us more about that.
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MM: Yeah, I probably can give you kind of a—kind of a general overview. One thing I think is rather important is that we—we can’t use the term industry generically like we can use the term cities generically eith—either. So it depends on the industry itself, and where it’s located, and what options it has available. So it’s not—it’s not so simple, and I think one of the reasons why the problems have been difficult to resolve is that—that you don’t have a c—a consistent set of—of questions to deal with. I just got back from Rochester, New York two weeks ago and I, for the first time, got to visit the Love Canal site, which I wanted to see. And, you know, I—it gave me a—a—a little better sense of what had happened there. You really have to kind of look at a—a place to see its relationship to—to a particular industry and set of circumstances. But in saying that, the—ih—the role of industry overall in terms of
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dealing with waste is a—is a kind of a complex one. On one level, industries, for example, like refining, and like petrochemicals, and chemical industries, have a long history of recycling some of their materials. Recharging acids, finding ways to reuse certain kind of materials because this was economically viable to do it. And certainly that’s always been—that’s always been the bottom line. If you had a—a very dear resource, something that was not well—always available, trying to—to glean everything you can out of it, or recycle it, or so forth, becomes essential. And there’s a great history to be written about—about the recycling or reuse of material within the industrial community. On the other hand, waste materials that are generated by a variety of industries end up in different places. Now, certainly in the case of the—the petrochemical industry and the—the refining industry along the—
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the Gulf Coast and near Houston, watercourse became an obvious source. So jump—dumping waste in the Ship Channel, things going into the—into the—the Gulf of Mexico via the—the Galveston Bay, dumping waste into municipal sewer system, existing system, these are options that were available and utilized. Sometimes they’re ground disposal, deep injection, and, you know, and plots of land that were used for—for waste disposal, and so forth. The—the determination to do that has a lot to do with what could be done versus what should be done, be—because in different points in time, it was legal to do certain kinds of dumping that now has become illegal. And as a result, if cities could—if industries could utilize marshland,
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swampland that was not considered to be arable, or use for their good purposes, then that was acceptable way of disposing of—of the waste. And—and we have to keep in mind, too, that historically, especially in the United States, that environment is not economic overhead. It was not considered the part of the cost of doing business. And as a result then, getting rid of various kinds of waste, via smokestacks, via water, via land, often meant kind of the least important political line of resistance. Was there illegal dumping? Is there illegal dumping of waste materials? Of course. That—that gets done—it—at different places at different times. Difficult to document. So industrial practices—and I hate to be so general, but it’s kind of hard not to be—very, very much in time, and in circumstance. And in recent years where we—we see the—the—the layers of laws, the sensitivity to certain environmental concerns, the willingness and ability of companies to want to
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be identified as being green—quote-unquote—all these things kind of influence changes in behavior. That—does that mean that the w—the waste generation is—is ending? Not necessarily. The Superfund issue is—is interesting and curious on—on a number of different levels because the way in which Superfund operates is that those that are found responsible for cleaning up these wastes, potentially responsible parties, would be anyone that has any kind of control over the land or the waste site throughout the history of that—of that—of that waste material. So even if—if a company had dumped something illegally on—on their land back in the 1940’s, they are still potentially responsible for that—for that cleanup. So one of the immediate needs when the Superfund law went into—went into place was, one, to identify sites. That is, how do we define a Superfund site? You know, what kind of a list do we
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create? What kind of a priority do we—do we make of these things? And then secondly is doing the—the hard work of finding who is responsible. And—and then after finding who is responsible, trying to allocate the cost of that responsibility. And one of the reasons why Superfund has not been terribly successful is the inability to go from that second step to the third step after identifying who is responsible and then trying to make people, you know, live up to that responsibility. And what normally happens, of course, is this becomes a legal issue and gets wound up in—in the courts. And—even a—even a very, very wealthy company, a company that could essentially take out its checkbook and write a check to clean up a particular site, or to remediate it, may not want to do that because they do not want to set a
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precedent that would lead for them to do this another time and another time and another time. And so sometimes these battles seem a little perplexing because, although they may mean thirty million dollars, you’ll say, well, why does Company X worry about thirty million dollars? That’s not that big of a deal in the big picture of things. But in terms of setting legal precedent and so forth, there’s always those concerns. So what’s happened is that lawyers get involved, expert witness, and I do expert witness work, we get paid, you know, pretty well to be engaged in these—these cases. But what doesn’t get happened is—is remediation. And there’s mechanisms for doing it, but the mechanisms are—have been generally tied to penalty rather than to efforts and cooperation that—and, again, what companies I
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think are looking for, in my mind, is as much—not so much exoneration, but at least a recognition that that what they did did not make them holy or completely culpable for—for the acts them self. And so Houston has a—a large number of hotspots and a large number of—of Superfund sites. The—the Brio site near the—the—the Ship Channel area was a fairly—fairly well-known case that got a lot of citizen involvement and activity in trying to—to bring to an end what had been a—a kind of a—a classic case of—of industrial dumping. And so th—th—this—these things haven’t changed here. The—the question I ce—couldn’t answer for you would be, how do the practices today compare with the past? That is, do we see more responsibility in the industry, and what percentage of change is there? W—h—who are the good citizens? Who are not? All of that is—is still either mired in courts or
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not available for us as historians to—to determine. But the reality is that we still haven’t found any easy way for disposing of a whole variety of waste that are not going to influence us in a—in a—a negative way, certainly in terms of health in particularly.
DT: Maybe you can help us understand why Houston hosts such a great concentration of, I think it’s probably the greatest concentration in the country—Harris County area, of—of Superfund sites. It is—is it a technological problem of trying to deal with these combinations of solvents and heavy metals? Or—or is it a political and legal problem that—that Texas isn’t willing to take responsibility for these things? What—what do you think it is?
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MM: Well, on the surface of it, it w—w—it’s the—the largest kind of petrochemical facility, you know, in the country. You know, it’s—it’s kind of a no-brainer. The kind of industry that has made this city what it is is highly concentrated in areas of petrochemicals and—and in petroleum refining and—and so forth and so on, which are heavily polluting and potentially polluting. So because of that high concentration, that’s made all the difference in the world. We can go across our border to Louisiana and go to, you know, so-called Cancer Alley, we can go to Long Beach, you know, in California, any place that has the high concentration of the kinds of industries we’ve had. In the past it could be steel mills, it could be s—smeltering in Georgia, it can be, you know, steel in—in Pennsylvania, the industrial east, you know, Cleveland, Cincinnati, you name it. So these k—these places are highly susceptible that are producing these sites. Now, part of the reason why these issues don’t get addressed early on, some of them have historical roots. That is that what is illegal today sometimes was legal before. And there’s also kind of the lack of will in terms of kind of political leadership. Again, placing priorities on certain things
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and not on other. Here you have the classic dilemma between the desire for economic growth and the r—the apprehension about im—imposing stringent environmental law. And again, the tradeoffs had favored traditionally economic growth. Fettering industry seemed to be one way to lose jobs. So if you look at, you know, U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana, you have, you know, the same trajectory, the same history. You know, the people that were working in the plants exposed seriously to—to all kinds of hazards. People living in the proximity of the plants, also. Those people living in the suburbs, they get some of the air pollution, but not maybe anything more than that. So these—these have been kind of classic dilemmas that have been made more complex by the inability of—of the government to impose the kind of rigorous kind of—of antipollution laws that would need to be enforced in order to mitigate against the pollution. So that’s—that’s part of the—part
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of the culture. It’s not only part of the Houston culture, it’s part of a—a national culture which has been evolving and changing over time. We tend to be a little slower in some areas than other parts of the—of the world. And, you know, can you blame the public for that? Can you blame the average citizen? If the average citizen is not well informed, that—that’s a problem. If the average citizen chooses not to be well informed, that’s a problem. And in our society, I mean the—the—there’s all kinds of clichés. You know, the—the affluent American lifestyle, we have th—the level of expectation that is—is so high that to ask for sacrifice seems to take away a birthright. It’s very, very—very difficult to do so. I taught environmental history in Denmark for a year, was teaching at the University of Southern Denmark. And among other things, we’d—we would talk about comparisons between Denmark, a very little country—thirty million—and then the United States, and how they
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confronted environmental issues. For example, with terms of automobile emissions, the one way that the Danes have tried to reduce air pollution was to put a high tax on automobile purchasing. So if you buy a car in Denmark, the tax is probably a hundred perc—fifty percent of the value of the automobile. So what that does within a country where salaries and income are pretty level, given the—the—the nature of that society, most families, maybe in the middle class, can have one car at the most. They’re not likely to have any more than that. And so you reduce the number of cars on the road, you reduce the amount of air pollution. So rather than having aggressive antipollution laws that would tax or fine people, they have that as well. But what you do instead is reduce the supply. You do it on the supply side. And, you know, would that kind of a policy work or have worked in the United States? Probably not. Given our historical political traditions, you don’t have that kind of
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centralized authority that can dictate that kind of behavior, or a population that would accept it. And one of the questions I always ask my Danish students is, if, let’s take for example, that they drop the hundred and fifty percent tax on automobiles, would you buy a car? Up went the hands. So, you know, it’s—it’s—you can reinforce behaviors, but you can also use a government in a—in a coercive way. In some societies, it can work better than others. That kind of—that—if you call it kind of political coercion or econ—or governmental coercion, is part of a whole general relationship between the people and their government. And we have a m—a more complex relationship and it might not work. But, again, citizen behavior plays a role. It might be—be simply a indicator of—of—of what the society thinks in general. But if you’re allocating responsibility, you know, people have responsibility, too. That doesn’t take industry off the hook, or government off the hook, but it’s important.
DT: Well, you talked so far about the government and industry, and—and to an extent, the public as consumers. I was hoping that you could talk about how the public as—as advocates, and—and as sort of an expression of public interest, have been involved in trying to improve the—the services for—for water, or wastewater, and solid waste, particularly in the Houston and—and Texas area.
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MM: Yeah. I think that the—the question of an—an environmental advocacy, again, a—a—a big issue. Certainly, we have currently, without going back in history, some sensitivity to some issues. I think that it becoming more—more popular and—and better understood. Some of these are divided oftentimes by—by groups and class. In terms of class and race, the great strides were made in—in the development of the environmental justice movement in recent years since the ‘80s brought to public attention, among other things, inner city issues like lead paint on the walls of—of schools and in homes that could negatively affect small children, issues that were very, very much tied to—to the central city. Houston, interestingly enough, is the birthplace of probably some of the earliest environmental justice activities in the whole United States. The first piece of—of what we might call
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environmental justice legislation was brought to the courts in the 1980’s—early 1980’s here in Houston over the siting of a—of a waste site in a—in a—a—a historically black community in Northwood Manner. That case was brought by Linda McKeever Bullard, the wife of Bob Bullard who was a professor of sociology at Texas Southern, and now considered one of the—sort of the leading lights in—in environmental justice. And what Linda did was to use civil rights law as a justification for prosecuting this case. That is that people’s civil rights were being violated because the site was—the—the toxic facility was in a black neighborhood, and—and this was intentional, and—and so on and so forth. The way in which the courts operate, there wasn’t a precedent for looking at environmental impingements of this kind utilizing kind of a civil rights argument in the case, and it was not—was
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not favorably rendered by the courts, at least in terms of—of the—of the plaintiffs. But nonetheless, those issues, those issues peculiar to cities, peculiar to high po—high concentration of—of minority and—and—and—and working class or lower class people, have some important roots here in Houston, very, very—very significant ones. So that’s one level of kind of awareness and participation. That is the—what begins as the kind of NIMBY approach, not in my backyard, that becomes a kind of grassroots reaction against an environmental—environmental problem. Another point of—of interest in—in—in environmental awareness in Houston had to do with the—the evolution and development of a recycling program for the city. N—not an overall city plan, but a—a more selective one, and a—a kind of a corporate recycling
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program. And I was involved directly in those programs as a—as a participant several years ago. And the assumption was that a place like Houston, so expansive, so large, so affluent, would not take to recycling, and that it would be something that would not b—would not sell here. And it’s interesting that the recycling program, although has been on shaky legs of late, and it never pays for itself, is something that was embraced by a number of neighborhoods. And I think recycling is a really interesting window into public participation. Critics of recycling say it really doesn’t do any good because you’re not dealing with enough materials that can be returned to use, people are kind of intermittent in their—in their practices, they still buy a lot of stuff that they—that they waste. There is a—the problem that even when there’s good intentions about recycling materials, some of it gets
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dumped into landfills and not taken care of. So that really is kind of going through the motions. And I think that that’s patently unfair because, on a number of levels, recycling is important as kind of reorienting our thinking about how we use resources, and how we conserve them, and how we use them efficiently, and what things we should waste and—and—or use, and what things we should throw away. So there is a—a—a kind of a like cultural transformation that maybe will take time. But at the same time, it’s an empowering kind of a—a—a participation as well. I think all of us today that worry about issues of global warming and—and related kind of—kind of cosmic issues always feel kind of vulnerable that we can’t do anything. You know, what—what am I going to do? What difference would it make what I do to the larger picture? And I think we’ve had that dialogue, and we’re having that dialogue on how we can participate in terms of our driving habits, and the kind of
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goods we use, and so forth. But recycling was one of those—those issues that was—was very, very much empowering. And I think it also created a sensitivity to much broader issues in the environment than we might—might imagine. So I always saw that as significant, and I was always pleased to see that Houston had done some experimentation, again, public/private ventures—Browning-Ferris Incorporated was brought in to consult with the city about developing a recycling program, and in the early years of that program they were active in participating. And then the city took over the program. We s—we certainly see, within—within cities like Houston and elsewhere, concern about green space. The need for more parkland, the desire to utilize and see made available a—a—a parkland along the periphery of the city. These are the kind of—the old instincts of—of—of Americans going back to the
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nineteenth century, the—the National Park Movement, and so forth. Those issues still raise questions about the degree to which humans should be actually utilizing precious resources. The national parks were set up not to preserve them, but to make those areas accessible to people. It isn’t until 1964 with the Wilderness Act where we really change our attitude about rocks having rights and trees having standing. Until that time, essentially, the Park Movement was a way of—of—of providing access of people into what was considered to be “pristine areas,” which they were not. But there is that—I think that—that urge within an urban area particular to want to see green space expanded. And I—and in Houston I think that’s been part of the dialogue with the Park Department and the groups like the Park People and a local environmental activist that have focused on the development
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of a botanical gardens, reserving more land for—for green space. I was talking to a colleague at the university who’s been very active in restoring prairie lands around Houston, south of Houston toward Galveston, also the Katy area, Katy Prairie. And so you have a—a whole mixture of issues that sometimes don’t seem very urban, but are important to people that live in cities, and that—that want to have that kind of a balance between the advantages of urban life, and also opportunities that take them outside of that environment.
DT: Well, this is really helpful. I—I was hoping that maybe you could help us maybe understand the same role of citizens, and particularly citizens as advocates, and with a—a few examples. Maybe you could comment on—on the McCarthy Road Landfill, or on Holmes Road Incinerator, or on—you know, as far as examples of how the city should properly deal with solid waste or incinerated waste. And maybe a third example would be how the city and the Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District deals with runoff, and—and—and whether we channelize bios that try to leave them in a more natural state.
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MM: Yeah. Big issues. And again, I can just kind of give some general comments. Disposal of—of solid waste in Houston, not any different than any place else. That is, what options are there available? And—and since at least 1945, the—the dominant form of disposal in the United States was a sanitary landfill. Until the—into the 1980’s, this was considered to be the—the best way to dispose of waste, in a—a—a healthy way, and in a—in a successful way, that would be relatively inert in (?) on the environment. Well, they were not. They were a—a gigantic step forward. The earliest one that set the pattern was built in Fresno, California in 1936—’35-’36. And what they were trying to do is reduce kind of vermin—rats and animals getting into the—into the waste and carrying disease out of there, reducing smells, and so forth. And tha—those were major changes in attitude about the—the—the method of
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disposal, which was these great trenches, put waste in it, cover it with dirt, put more waste, and cover it with dirt again. The problem is that those early landfills were not lined at the bottom, and there was no kind of monitoring devices for leaching of—of—of waste into the—into the water s—system, or methane gas production, which could lead to explosions and fires. As the—the waste sites began to change and to reflect a much more heterogeneous kind of m—t—types of material, not only organic waste, but waste that came from—from the household, solvents, and so forth, illegal dumping, waste from hospitals. But where municipal dumps became essentially municipal landfills became toxic sites. And without the liners and so forth, you begin to see leaching taking place. And what was a—a big step forward in terms of a technology proved to be less successful. And so as we move into the 1980’s, and as
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land becomes more difficult to obtain, especially in the East Coast and in the Great Lakes, running out of landfill space, the potential environmental risks, made them less viable. And so people began to talking about alternatives, and the alternatives were incinerators which had their own problems, more recycling, and we see that EPA will put a, you know, twenty-five percent, and then thirty-five percent recycling rate on—as a guidepost for the country over the last several years.
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MM: So there were—there were some alternatives, and the question is, what is viable, what isn’t. Cities like Houston began to think about moving its waste sites away from population centers. But then there’s the dilemma, where do you put them. There was a—not much inclination to put them in the middle class suburbs, put them in areas where people had kind of political leverage and would scream and yell, and so what happened is, in most cases, landfills were sited either in vacant areas that quickly changed as a city grew, or in areas of least political resistance, which put them into oftentimes in minority neighborhoods. And Bob Bullard’s early work, particularly when he was at Texas Southern, kind of showed that if you looked at virtually every incinerator and landfill in the city, they were in a black neighborhood. And so here you get the—a—a political decision based upon a t—a technical decision based upon an economic decision. You know, we’d—we have to
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have the—the facility, how can we do it cheaply, where can we put it. And so in these cases, you—you see these sites migrating to areas that did not have much political clout. As our sensitivity to the environmental risk factors kind of increased with these sites, and as grassroots activity begins to grow, and these grassroots groups begin to network within the city and beyond the city, then these sites become kind of pariah. And a couple things have happened. One is, the sites get closed. And several of the sites in Houston have been closed over the years. There are very, very stringent federal laws on how to close landfills. The problem is, even if you follow those laws, you can’t go back and redo the weak parts of the landfill. So if you didn’t have a liner to begin with, you can’t put it in underneath the garbage anymore. Doesn’t work. You can put in methane monitoring systems, you can put in leachate monitoring systems, you can cover the landfill, you can do all those
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things, and some of those things are done, but what—what you have are lingering and potential problems that are not going to go away. And that will lead to lawsuits, that will lead to trying to find ways to create leachate barriers, you know, outside of—outside of the—the landfill sites themselves. So these are, again, a decision that’s made relatively early without foreknowledge or trying to find kind of politically easy ways of doing things have kind of longer-term reactions. And—and we now understand these problems a lot—a lot better. And as government understands them better, the popular advocacy groups, and the grassroots groups, also understand them better. And what we’ve seen happening in the last several years on almost on every environmental issue is that the—the level of education and expertise that are drawn to public advocacy groups makes them formidable in the—in the—in
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the public dialogue. And when you have opportunities through hearings, the changes that took place with environmental impact statements and NEPA, all of those things have provided access to the public. I mean it—it—the game is sometimes rigged. I—I understand that. I don’t want to be—to—to be so naïve as to say that—that everything is open. But there are more opportunities for—for a dialogue, let alone change. In the case of flooding, you do have, again, the same problem of, can you correct what was done in the past. Can you de-canalize what you’ve already canalized? Or do you seek other technologies, other approaches, a development of warning systems? You know, what—what do you retrofit on the existing system to m—to mitigate against those problems? And the—the additional complicating issue, and I—I’ve written about this, too, is that the nature of pollution
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changes. And in the case of water, non-point pollution, w—well contamination, are issues that were not even important before, you know, the 1970’s certainly. S—storm water—storm drain (?) combined sewer overflows, those kinds of things that are really kind of the bread and butter of the engineering community’s decision making about trying to improve municipal services are issues that are relatively new, at least new to us and our—our sensitivity to them. But non-point pollution creates some real problems. You can’t simply build a new waste treatment plant and stick it, you know, close to the bayou and assume that it’s going to attract all the—all the pollutants that you have to deal with. And some of these issues have now been regionalized, and therefore, cities have to cooperate with counties, and have to cooperate with—with, you know, with MUDs and—and—and—and so forth. And the
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jurisdictional complexities create problems for decision making. Collective action is—is more difficult. So even if—even if the role, for sake of argument of the—of the court change in terms of it’s strategies, even if you get more public advocacy of these issues, even if you get a—a flood control moving up on the—on the priority list, you’re still having to react to historical realities what you have in terms of urban growth in the existing technologies. And again, I—I would emphasize over and over again, this is why history is so valuable. It is not valuable necessarily for telling us how to proceed into the future, but to understand the complexities of the past. You can’t set policy unless you really understand all of the elements that go into the decision making. And that you can’t simply—I’ve talked to people in the public and the solid waste industry, and they said we’re waiting for that ultimate black box.
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We’re waiting for something that’s going—technology that’s going to solve everything. Well, unfortunately, it isn’t simply technology. Technology can be an answer, it can also be a cause. And so you have to think about the larger kind of human and technical, economic and political issues that have to be understood before you can kind of move forward in—in—and create a policy. Ignorance of the past, to me, is—is a terrible mistake. And so, you know, I—that’s why I feel, as an historian especially interested in environmental issues, that we provide a service. We don’t provide answers, we provide questions. I think that’s what we’re—we’re really good at.
DT: So far we’ve talked about the investments, and advocacy, and political discussions that have gone on about trying to provide services to cities to take care of waste from the angle of government, industry, and—and the public. And I was hoping that you could tell us now about some of the public health concerns that all these discussions grew out of.
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MM: Yeah. That is a—a central issue. When we—when we talk about urban environment and pollution, and we’re talking about one set of issues that certainly bring in that (?) of the government people and industry. But really, it’s—it’s public health concerns, and certainly epidemics early on in the United States, that really began to kind of galvanize an interest in environmental problems. I would argue, and I have argued, that if you look at the evolution of the city services we’ve been talking about, they emerged because of sensitivity to public health issues. And in some rather ironic ways, if I can take a couple seconds to talk about it, the earliest water supply systems, wastewater systems, solid waste systems, that were citywide in the United States, emerged before about 1880. Many of them 18—late 1830s to 1870’s. At that time, the way in which people believed disease was transmitted, first they believed disease was transmitted because you were unworthy and you were poor, and God was punishing you. But the scientific “argument” was that they were
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caused by miasmas, which means that decaying material gave off smells that was unhealthy. And it was the decaying material and the smells that caused disease. So this miasmatic theory, which really grew up in England and—and became pretty well entrenched in the 1840’s, led people to believe that if you get rid of waste and get it away from people, you would solve the problems of disease. So this is exactly what people started to do. It was called environmental sanitation. And I—if you did remove these wastes, coincidentally, you were moving those mosquitoes and moving those disease vectors away, and in fact, diseases—communicable diseases, epidemics began to—to decline. The reality was you weren’t dealing with the cause of disease at all, which is bacteria, or the transmission of bacteria through—through rats or, you know, mosquitoes, or flies, or whatever. So what I’ve always said is that you—that a—a good technology, these water supply systems, came from bad science. They were done for the wrong reasons, but they ended up having a positive
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effect. We see this in England in the 18—1830’s and ‘40s, a very famous case of—of Broad Street in London that was an area that was known for having a tremendously healthy water supply, a w—a well that was—was so good that people from the surrounding neighborhoods would come to drink there. And then all of a sudden a tremendous outbreak of cholera took place. And they couldn’t figure out why that was the case until a Dr. Snow, who really becomes one of the most important early public health physicians, tracked the—the disease to the water supply itself. And it—it was—they had to go look into the well and see where the water was coming that got to the well, and was getting contaminated on its way into—into the well itself. They—the story went that he broke the pump handle pump. In reality, they
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removed the pump handle and kept them from using the water, and the disease stopped. The problem stopped. So this was a—a—a—a great step forward. But in the 1880’s and 1890’s when Louis Pasteur and—and—and Koch in Germany began to explore disease under the microscope, they discovered that there were germs or bacteria that really were transmitting disease. And so we move into the area of the b—the bacteriological revolution where we began to understand really what the causes of disease were. And so these waterborne diseases, certainly cholera and—and all the other, and i—diseases like Yellow Fever, now could be understood. The techniques changed how to deal with them. You inoculate people, immunize people, you isolate populations, you do water testing, all those things that will help you to—to figure out where the pollution resides, and this created a—a—a real different
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attitude toward the promotion of health. And what happens is that water supply systems that were essentially coming from source to the customer were now finding intermediary steps of filtration and—and treatment. Chlorine, chloramine get dropped into the water supply to disinfect the water in order to make it safe for people to use. And so the change in—in public health knowledge changed the quality of those services and reduced epidemics. Some diseases began to, especially waterborne diseases, began to fall of very, very sharply by the early—early twentieth century. So health had—issues had—were a driving force in creating these—these services. One interesting sidelight here is that during this period up until the 20’s, 30’s, even the 40’s, it was believed that industrial waste, toxics, phenols that were dumped into the river, were not necessarily a bad thing. They would disinfect
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the river. They would kill the biological factors and improve things. A really odd view. But pollution was understood to be biological pollution. And it isn’t until certainly a little before World War II, and certainly after World War II, that we have a more ecological view of the world that influences how we thought—we think about disease. But the—the—the question of epidemic disease and urban development go hand-in-hand. That is, when you brought huge populations of people together, no matter where they are in the world, including Houston and other places, this elevated the potential for—for risk. And it was only through, again, these services, and then ultimately an understanding of how disease is transmitted that—that things improved. The—the one interesting institutional change that takes place is that sanitarians and public health officials began to rise in importance and stature in the cities as they began to be seen as the people that could best help reduce the
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problems of—of epidemic. And along with them, the engineering community develops a new sub-discipline called sanitary engineering, which later becomes environmental engineering. And those engineers are trained in public health. And so you have technical people with public health backgrounds, you have sanitarians, and you have public health officials, along with them some physicians that are helping to see the cause of disease. Now, by the time that the bacteriological theory becomes popular, we begin to see a change in attitude. So if—if you understand that disease comes from germs, then what better way to deal with it but to deal with people as individuals. Inoculate them. Immunize them. Therefore, public health seems to be nothing but a technical response. Engineers can do that. Engineers can
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build water supplies. Engineers can be s—build sewer lines. Engineers can h—can build sanitary landfills. Doctors need to deal with people one-to-one to improve their health. Public health as a field begins to diminish in its significance in the United States after World War II. Private medicine and—and the MD begins to increase in importance. Using medications, you now, penicillin, immunization, all these—all these things. And you see this tremendous imbalance in the way in which health is dealt with in this country. And one of the really curious things about the—the modern era is, and I’m talking about now—here and now, is the—the—the new consideration of public health. What the environmental movement, environmental sensitivity helped us to do is to realize that in order to have a thoroughly healthy society, you need both. You need private care, and you need a b—concern about public health. And that’s been—been emerging again as a—as an important part of our dialogue.
DT: We’ve—we’ve talked a little bit about h—how you’ve viewed environmental history here in Houston, and—and more broadly, looking at governmental responses, industrial, public citizens, and—and then the public health concerns that underlie all those efforts. I was hoping that we could return now to talk about your own career as a aci—academician, and how it’s—it’s very unlike what I think was more common in the past where a professor would be involved in research and teaching. But now it seems like you’ve found other tools and different audiences to educate people. I was hoping you could talk about those efforts.
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MM: Sure. I—I—I have to give a pitch for what’s happened to the—very quickly with the history profession. You know, until late in the nineteenth century, historians were actually public people. Thucydides, when he was writing about the Peloponnesian War, was paid for by the Athenians to write this history. And so he had someone that wanted to get out there and then—and to tell their story. And later his history retreated into the academy. And I think in the last twenty years ag—or so, we’ve kind of moved back out into the public once again. And I think part of it has to do with your inclinations. I mean some—my colleagues, that—that’s not their interest. They want to mind the past and understand as much as they can. In my case, the two things that—that drive me are, one, is the expertise that you develop. You can’t spend all the time teaching and doing research in these
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environmental ar—areas without developing a tremendous amount of information and understanding of these questions. And I’m—and it gives you a certain expertise. You have to be careful that you don’t oversell what you know, but at the same time, I think it—it’s—provides—there’s a basic reservoir of ideas. The other is the importance of history, as I mentioned, as a tool. The—the knowledge of the past is a—is a powerful tool for understanding the present and the future. Now, my case, aside from teaching and research, I’ve been—it’s led me out to do a lot of things. Some that are kind of closely related. I’ve done a lot of consulting with museums, where I’ve worked with the Smithsonian on several occasions, and other museums, to build and construct exhibits that deal with some of these kinds of issues. That’s
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been very common. I’ve worked with neighborhoods to write their own histories of what they do and what’s important to them to get them to think about some of these issues that are meaningful in their own—in their own lives. I’ve consulted with government. I’ve worked with local groups, either advocacy groups, or government groups, or even private industry, talking about some of these issues, how they might influence k—policy making. I’ve even done some of this on the international level as well. So sharing expertise. I’ve worked very closely with engineers with the American Public Works Association, and related institutions, about training engineers in—in environmental history, giving them that kind of insight, talking with them about—about local project development and so forth. And also, I’ve done, in recent years, quite a bit of work as an expert witness. So that my expertise in toxic waste, or solid waste, or water, or what have you, has made its way into the—into the
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courts. And so I act as an expert. Or I’ll do research, develop different sets of data, do reports that find their way into—into discussion of lawsuits. The early ones I’ve done deal with Superfund, and then I’ve branched out into other areas that mostly deal with pollution issues or—or solid waste. So there is—there are all these touch points. And I’ve also been a talking head in media, and also helped to develop some media projects that get information out to people. So I’ve consulted on—on some of the projects where I’ve been a talking head. And in fact, in our program, in our Center for Public History, one of our goals is to probably produce more media, produce more documentary work that will speak to some of these—these kinds of questions. And so the touch points are many. I mean I’m—I—I meet with people all over the place. I was at the Institute of Medicine in Washington recently working on
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questions of water and sustainability, how we develop new policies, in—in that realm. And so the—the—the—the contact points are—are many. And with a computer, and with—it—e-mail has, like everybody, changed my life. So any one day I’m talking to people from three or four different countries. There’s—once in a while there’s a—a local student from Houston that says, hi, I’m a doing a history fair project, can you help me understand, you know, something on the environment. So you—you become a—a public resource. And I do think that part of my obligation, as a scholar, as a representative of the University of Houston, as a member of—of this community, is to do that. That’s something we should do. And a lot of us do it. I don’t think the public understands how many of their university professors, in particular, do—do this kind of public service. It’s a great deal of their time.
DT: Well, you’ve just been talking about how you branched out to communicate and pass on information about environmental history to a lot of different (?), I mean from, like you said, as an expert witness, or as a media consultant, or as a advisor to a—a kid who’s doing a history project. I was wondering if you could—see if you could boil down some of the messages that—that no doubt you’ve got in your mind that you would want to pass on to, not just people currently, but towards the future. I mean why this is important to you, why it should matter to other people, and—and certainly matter to the folks in the future.
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MM: Well, I think why it should matter to us is, you know, is becoming self-evident. As we begin to talk more about issues of global warming, as we begin to talk about issues of resource depletions—at—all the—all the array of issues, energy shortages and so forth, it is that essential relationship with our physical environment that we need to appreciate and have to think about when we do almost anything—o—as an educator. Learning and education is absolutely the heart of everything, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to go out and get an environmental studies degree, or an environmental engineering degree, but it is the need to—to be kept informed and want to be informed. Not to shy away from trying to understand what these issues are. Being curious, being intellectually curious is something that you would really hope people would do. Books are not the only place one can do that. I mean one thing about our modern world is we have so many
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options to do that. And people, you know, they—they shy away from these issues sometimes because they—they don’t want to think about them. They would rather—you know, they work hard and they want to come home and—and—and forget about the—the ugly side of life. Or they—they don’t—they feel bombarded, or they feel helpless that they—that they can’t learn. So I think it’s—I think the first thing that all of us have to do, and this includes myself, is be true to yourself. One of the really difficult things about being an environmental historian is people expect you to live a green life every moment of the day. And the first time that happened is my first environmental—significant environmental book was published in 1980. And the first question that a reporter asked me is, was this printed on recycled paper? And in those days, very few books were. And I had to say no. Or if I’m giving a talk on waste disposal, we had small kids, and they said, do you use paper diapers, or do you use cloth diapers? And what kind of a car do you drive? And do you recycle?
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And these are questions that you’re asked regularly. But I think that what it boils down to is having to be true to yourself, and what kind of a—an example you lead for yourself, let alone for someone else. We certainly try to pass on to our children, and—and we have grandchildren, theirs as well, but it’s—it’s this awareness that’s—that you have to initiate. It—it does come down to personal responsibility, I’m—I’m afraid, and—and not everybody’s go—are going to have the same passion. But it—you know, a well-informed citizenry is at the very heart of what this country’s ideals are about, and—and it—it gets very, very sad when—when we—we don’t live up to those. So, you know, rather than try to shake your finger at somebody and tell them how they should think, what I would say is think, you know. Think about it. Think about what it means to you. And—and if you’re—if you’re inclined to act, great. If you’re not, you can live your own life in a way that is more consistent with the need to be compatible with our environment.
DT: Well, is—is there anything you’d like to add?
00:53:59 – 2422
MM: I think that’s a good point to end on.
DT: All right. Well, we’ll end there. Thanks very much.
00:54:04 – 2422
MM: Thanks.
[End of Reel 2422]

[End of Interview with Marty Melosi]