Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Death, despair, destruction: a few long reads

Posted By on 05.16.12 at 12:32 PM

Lake Jocassee
  • Stanislav Vitebskiy
  • Lake Jocassee
There are so many good things to read on the Internet right now! Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Go on—you’ve got my permission. And my suggestions:

Wes Enzinna’s "Last Ones Left in a Toxic Kansas Town," which appears in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine, looks at Treece, a small town left to ruin by the mining industry. In the 1920s the Treece area was the country’s leading producer of zinc and lead, but by 1981, after its resources had been depleted, the EPA found it one of the most contaminated spots in the country. By now, Enzinna writes,

The local Tar Creek is the color of orange juice, and it smells like vinegar. This is because when the mining companies left, they shut off the pumps that kept abandoned shafts from filling with groundwater. Once water flooded the tunnels, it picked up all the trace minerals underground — iron, lead and zinc — and flushed them into rivers and streams. . . . "Local kids used to skinny-dip here all the time," Dennis said, grinning and pointing at the glassy water. "We’d see kids with sunburns all over their bodies." But it turns out the kids hadn’t been burned by the sun, he said; they had been chemically burned by all the acids in the water.

It’s now home to just two people—the only resisters of a joint buyout by the EPA and a state environmental agency. The rest of the town was auctioned off:

Colonel Jerry stood up, brushed off his pants and cleared his throat. He walked over to a microphone and addressed the 100 buyers assembled in the gravel parking lot of City Hall. "All right, people," he said, "we’re going to start the auction here in the heart of America, beautiful downtown Treece, Kansas. . . ." And in less than an hour, the artifacts of collective life in Treece were sold as scrap:

• The 45,000-gallon water tower: $1,600
• William and Holly Bruner’s house on Kansas Avenue: $45
• Jesus Name Pentecostal Church on Main Street, including each of its 11 pews: $50

Related: our "Toxic Tour of Northwest Indiana," a story from last year that paired Lloyd DeGrane’s photography with a piece by Kari Lyndersen about the heavy environmental impact of industry around the Illinois-Indiana border.

Enzinna, the author of the NYT Mag piece, is the senior editor at the Oxford American, which is fast becoming one of my favorite magazines. The story of Treece reminds me of the hauntingly beautiful essay "The Rapture of the Deep" (PDF), which the OA published last year. It's by Bronwen Dickey, who went diving in Lake Jocassee, a hydroelectric reservoir in South Carolina. In the 1960s, Duke Power bought out the farmers who lived in the valley that’s now Lake Jocassee, and they flooded it—with a few others, Dickey dove in search of the old town at the bottom of the lake:

This story haunts me most: Before they left Jocassee for the last time, a couple of residents stood on their porches and listened to the dynamite blasts. Some of them looked out over the Whitewater River, its surface chromed in the sun. But one man, Johnson Chapman, did not share the quiet resignation of his neighbors. He burned his house to the ground rather than let the power company burn it for him. Ran kerosene through it, set it alight, watched it blaze.

On Monday night, the Columbia University Human Rights Review released its spring issue, which is dedicated entirely to a single legal case: the 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna, which the Review claims was in error, for murdering a woman during a robbery in Corpus Christi in 1983. The entire report is online at thewrongcarlos.net. On the Atlantic website, Andrew Cohen provides a passionate distillation, beginning and ending with a mention of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who’s claimed that the history of capital punishment has been error-free. "If [a wrongful execution] had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it," Scalia wrote in 2006. "[T]he innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby."

No physical evidence and only one "sketchy" eyewitness tied DeLuna to the crime, Cohen notes, and it was "common knowledge" around Corpus Christi that another man, Carlos Hernandez, had committed the crime—it’s said that he "couldn’t stop bragging" about it. The Chicago Tribune has already investigated the DeLuna case. In 2006 reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley wrote that they "identified five people who say Hernandez told them that he stabbed Lopez and that De Luna, whom he called his 'stupid tocayo,' or namesake, went to Death Row in his place."

Cohen writes:

[I]t would be a shame if we were to view the DeLuna case through the prism of legal history. There is nothing ancient about the lessons it teaches. DeLuna may be gone. But the problems his case represents still are here, in virtually every jurisdiction that still imposes capital punishment. So last week I asked some of the most prominent death penalty experts in the country to look at my DeLuna "list" [of "things that went terribly wrong in the DeLuna case"] and then identify pending cases that were similarly marked with such obvious reasonable doubts.

The experts he talked to, Cohen writes, "all agreed that today in America there are plenty of more recent cases where these sorts of issues have arisen or could arise."

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