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About Canvas of Ruin

Canvas of Ruin

A Photographic Exploration of Ecological Calamity.

It was a struggle to post from China, and this website went through some ups and downs over the past year because of it.  Between VPN’s and poor internet access I was unable to post new information on any type of regular basis. This site failed many times or was damaged for several reasons, but I am now back to the U.S. living in California and will be updating the site.  4-13-17

…Not all that long ago I  changed the name of this website from Superfund Wisconsin to Canvas of Ruin for a few reasons. The first reason for change has been coming for a while and it is due to the fact that my documentation of Superfund Sites has reached beyond the borders of Wisconsin into the states on Missouri, Illinois, Arizona, California, and Nevada.

The next reason for change, which coincides with the first reason is that, I am living in China for the next year and plan to be posting from here. So Canvas of Ruin (formerly Superfund Wisconsin) has gone international.

The final reason for the name change was a more difficult decision. This site was created to document my community and the problems that needed to be discussed such as heavy metals and toxic pollution. Milwaukee and Wisconsin are dear to me. Documenting Superfund Sites in the city and in the state were a way to educate and start a discussion about the history of pollution and industry in the area.

In building that discussion across borders I often found a common problem about defining my project by a specific location. When I would mention Milwaukee or the state of Wisconsin to those who lived outside of the state at some point people would become uninterested because it had no immediate impact on their location, the essential mind set “if it’s not in my backyard” it did not affect them. This is the complete opposite outcome I wanted the project to initiate.

I live with the impact of pollution, and I live with Crohns Disease. Beyond the theoretical issues of land use  there is a dialogue about the immediate impacts of illness and disease. What happens in Wisconsin or in the United States affects the ecology of China and what happens in China will affect the ecology of the Americas.

This project has always been about more. More understanding and more recognition from all individuals about their own community and what surrounds them whether it be severe pollution and health or issues of racism, economic division, hunger and food production.

*The following is the original text from the websites first launch. 2014

A scene from Breaking Bad, a post-apocalyptic vision or a canvas for graffiti 60 EPA Superfund sites are scattered throughout Wisconsin’s urban and rural areas. The Environmental Protection Agency defines a Superfund site as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located and possibly affecting the local ecosystem or people. These areas are further recorded as Removal Sites (short term hazardous material removal) that are generally a time sensitive “triage” action for the removal of hazardous material or deemed a Remedial Site (long term clean up) which are listed on the National Proprieties List for immediacy and time of action due to the amount of pollution. The money to clean up these locations falls on the responsible party or previous operator, but often these properties are abandoned or fall into ownership limbo and money is then allocated from Congress out of general revenues. Originally Superfund was the title for a trust of taxes billed to petroleum and chemical industries. The tax was dissolved in 1995, at which point the fund was 6 billion dollars. By 2003 the original trust was exhausted and though there is resistance from the chemical and petroleum industry, there are efforts to reinstate the tax. My initial interest in researching Superfund sites in Wisconsin was generated while examining the environmental devastation in Picher, Oklahoma and Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Centralia, Pennsylvania was a thriving coal-mining town until 1962 when a fire at the local landfill ignited the underground mines. The fire grew and is unable to be extinguished because of the compact variety of Anthracite coal rich underneath the town. This all lead to great danger to the residents some of whom employed canaries in their homes to insure carbon monoxide levels were not threatening. Ultimately the state relocated of the majority of the community with the exception of a few holdouts refusing to leave. In 2002 Centralia’s zip code was revoked and after several failed attempts of extinguishing the fire the streets of Centralia burn as smoke and steam rise from the earth.

In 1996 a study found 34 % of Picher, Oklahoma’s children had lead poisoning leading to evacuation of the town and an eminent domain declaration by the EPA. Picher was a major national center for zinc and lead mining, but years of unregulated mining left the town’s infrastructure failing, contaminated, and put the health of its citizens at serious risk of illness. As of 2011 only 6 homes and 1 business remain of those who refuse to leave including the owner of Old Miner’s Pharmacy. The rest of the town has been set to be demolished.

There are no examples of eminent domain for Wisconsin Superfund sites or the removal zip codes, but there are areas of serious toxic waste and pollution that threatens the water, soil, and air of those that live near them. The sites photographed on this web site range from large-scale metal plating facilities to family owned dry cleaners. A common thread is present throughout these locations of a tragic division of human interaction with the environment that needs to be documented. It is an element of ignorance, hubris and unconscious blindness that has led these sites to become polluted, but the actions leading up to their declaration of Superfund site are not inaccessible and it is our responsibility as stewards of the land to ensure the education and documentation of such tragedies to prevent the same mistake happening again.

We look to nature to validate our own reality and to ground our existence, aesthetics and consciousness. It is our adverse interaction with the terrestrial and far to often our pollution of the environment that falsely authenticates the economics of society, but it is these interactions that we must identify, prevent, and educate ourselves from as not just harmful to the land or imitate communities, but all people and global communities.

It was easy to enter this project looking to point figures and place blame as to why these areas have become so polluted, and why does it continue to happen. The answer is never that simple and can be just as confusing as the EPA’s process of assessing a Superfund Site. Often a sense of mischievous ignorance plays a part when a property owner just goes missing, but other times there is no direct source or individual, but a history of business in one location that have all been responsible for the exhaustion of the property. Yet it is that history of business or more so the lack of facility rejuvenation and ecological sustainability within a business plan that occurs. The problems drive deep into the history of industrialization and contemporary issues in a late capitalistic society when an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) seems to undermine the free market. It should be the inverse mindset that negotiates with the health and well being of the land as a priority to produce goods for sale.

These sites vary from the monumental city block to a small suburban home. All are vacant, but one and there is a feeling of structures rusting before your eyes. As some rust, others become wonderful avian sanctuaries and life begins to take over the abandon land. Over the course of the past 6 months I made visits to these sites to photograph and explore the towns they inhabit, and I plan to continue to document these sites and other existing Superfund Sites in Wisconsin. It is my pleasure to be able to work with Kathy Halbur, an EPA Superfund On-Site Coordinator for Region 5. Her guidance and support has made this project possible.

C. Matthew Luther

All photographs: C. Matthew Luther unless otherwise noted.

Site Descriptions: C. Matthew Luther, Kathy Halbur, and The United States Environmental Protection Agency.