This seminar is part of the lunchtime seminar series for the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). Lunchtime seminars are typically no more than 30 minutes in length, followed by a period for audience questions (ending before 2pm). All are welcome.
All-Aboard the Poo-Poo Choo-Choo: Biosolids, Public Health, and Environmental Justice in Post-War America
Graham Mooney (Johns Hopkins University)
This paper is about the political, environmental, and public health aspects of human waste disposal in modern America. It reconstructs the ill-fated, two-month, 3,000-mile return journey in 1989 of a 63-car freight train containing 4,120 tons of sludge, which traveled from a waste-water treatment plant in Baltimore to Louisiana’s "Chemical Corridor" and back again. The train—which a gleeful media dubbed the "Baltimore Poo-Poo Choo-Choo"—became something of a human interest story as it sought to dump its smelly load in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Using interviews, newspaper articles, documentary films, television reports, a radio jingle, a folk music song, technical documents, and government hearings, I suggest that the train’s journey reflects the shifting terrain of municipal political economics, public health, and environmental justice in modern America. Although the export of human waste across state lines was fairly commonplace in this period, the paper argues that the layered geographies of social environmental justice in the American south propelled the Baltimore Poo-Poo Choo-Choo to national infamy. Activists and poor black southerners were briefly united with state and local government agencies in disgust at this out-of-place matter, at a time when these groups were otherwise at odds over environmental and health injustices to do with garbage disposal, incineration, lead smelting, and petrochemical refineries.