02/08/2013 08:55 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

My Parents Are NIMBYs: Why You Should Be Too

"Can we talk later? I'm about to speak to my congresswoman," my mother says via phone from New Hampshire, the only state in the nation with an all-woman delegation. "You know what I'll be talking about."

I do know. For years, my parents have lived in a condo directly across from what their city calls a 'working port.' For decades, I'd known the port as the 'salt pile,' where trucks picked up loads during winter months, sprinkling the highways after a storm. Only in recent years did the Port of New Hampshire transform into what locals less-lovingly refer to as the 'scrap pile.' Here, Mack trucks from Maine roll in hauling 'scrap' -- everything from your old fridge or car to your childhood jungle gym -- and ship it to countries in need of steel, primarily Turkey and China.

Recently, the scrap metal pile has been a point of contention in the local community: because the pile abuts the scenic Piscataqua River (one of the U.S.' fastest running tidal currents), mercury and PCBs have been leaching into the ground and nearby water, causing what the EPA has called a 'clear violation of the Clean Water Act.' In 2011, the Port and its contracted Grimmel Industries (the scrap metal collection and shipping facility operators) were ordered to stop discharging water sprayed on the scrap pile. They were also charged fines and asked to restore the ecological balance of waters at the port.

The entire story is circular, however: Grimmel and Port operators were only spraying the scrap because neighbors complained 'fugitive dust,' a legitimate environmental hazard, was regularly found on their cars, decks, and windows (and thus, likely, in their lungs too). The resulting runoff dramatically raised PCB and mercury levels in the river so now the scrap metal operation is in a Catch-22: how can they properly spray down the scrap (and thus appease neighbors) without impacting the river?

The scrap pile operators have requested to move the pile closer to the city's main thoroughfare of Market Street, but this has riled more than just the neighbors as it will directly impact nearby businesses and commuters. The fate of the scrap pile thus remains in a precarious balance trapped between local interests (like tugboat operators who escort the ships, port operators likely receiving nice kickbacks from Grimmel, and Grimmel itself), residents (a noisy collective of voices who won't back down), the State (strangely, the scrap operation contributes only 18 percent of the Port's revenue), and the federally run EPA.

My parents have never been activists nor strict environmentalists (although my mother did recommend Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring to me in high school). Now, suddenly, they are die-hard NIMBYs (an acronym for 'Not In My Backyard'), a term with a mostly pejorative air. My conservative father, one of the least confrontational people I know, attends town meetings where he weaves beautifully-rendered stories about the 'fugitive dust,' the water pollution, the environmental ramifications in a city that's one of New Hampshire's most progressive. He talks about the security concerns of so many international ships docking at the port, the vicious cycle of sending our waste to countries like China where environmental regulations are much looser than in the U.S.

And the thing is: he's right.

As in many NIMBY stories, the New Hampshire scrap metal operation reaches far beyond the Piscataqua's shores. Steel-hungry developing nations like Turkey and China are smelting scrap in plants requiring inordinate amounts of coal and without the environmental regulations set for smelting in the U.S. (see the blog Shanghai Scrap for frightening statistics). The Chinese steel industry alone is responsible for approximately 51% of all carbon emissions released by steelmakers worldwide.

In addition, the steel smelting industry causes massive releases of mercury into the atmosphere. In 2005, a study led by scientist David Streets estimated the amount of mercury released in China from 1999 emissions to be 590 tons (the U.S. emitted 117 tons) -- almost half resulted from the smelting of metals. Streets's team published a subsequent inventory estimating China's mercury emissions jumped to 767 tons in 2003 (one fears what that number is today -- a decade later).

And that mercury, like everything in this era of globalization, is not staying local: a 2011 Discover Magazine article entitled "Made in China: Our Toxic, Imported Air Pollution" reports that mercury and other particles (like sulfates, which cause lung cancer) from Chinese smelting operations are wafting eastward, invading much of the U.S. West coast at unprecedented levels. The article states, "People have accepted this notion when it comes to carbon dioxide or the chemicals that eat away at the ozone layer, but [University of Washington atmospheric chemist] Jaffe is finding that they are still coming to terms with the reality that it applies to industrial pollutants in general."

Some of the world's best NIMBYs conquered issues with large-reaching impacts -- for evidence, one needn't look further than Love Canal, where the term originated. A 1988 New York Times article, "Coping in the Age of Nimby," notes that NIMBYs "have become a new force in American business life that could push the country toward an unprecedented economic paralysis. In the abstract, most studies show, Americans want growth. They just do not want it near them."

And that's the crux of the matter: the path of least residence is to ignore a problem that isn't in our backyard. But, as this global era of pollution is quickly proving, naïveté is not the answer. Rachel Carson smartly observed that "man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."

Indeed, until we recognize the scrap metal pile at the Port of New Hampshire is not just my parents' problem, then we are all to blame. And that deathly blanket of smog hanging over Chinese cities in recent weeks? As the winds shift, clearing the skies above Beijing, expect a new storm of invisible pollutants coming to a city near you.