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Posted 08.10.06

 
 
   

MU Professor Chronicles National Disaster, Environmental Discrimination

Eight percent of fine dust in U.S. once originated from Owens Lake in California

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Owens Lake in California is a remnant of its past. Once full of water, it is now mostly dry. The lakebed's surface, filled with high levels of toxic dust, has resulted in a health and environmental catastrophe for the nation, says a University of Missouri-Columbia faculty member.

"Left in the Dust" by Karen Piper, an assistant professor in the Department of English in the College of Arts and Science, provides a detailed look at the history of Owens Lake and how its demise over the years has affected people and the environment. Piper's central themes focus on environmental inequality and the suspected health effects of inhaling the dust, known as PM-10, which she said travels as far as the Grand Canyon and Mexico and nearly five years ago was responsible for "eight percent of all the fine dust in the United States." In talking about the dust problem, Piper speaks from experience.

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"I grew up with this dust," said Piper, who was raised 50 miles south of the lake in Ridgecrest, Calif. "I was breathing it, coughing it. It affected my family and me, neighbors and people in my church."

In her book, she explains why water from Owens River, which supplied the lake and was used by farmers in Owens Valley, was diverted into Los Angeles for human use, supporting urban growth. She cites socio-economic discrimination as the primary reason. Piper said families living near the lake, many of which lost their land, and Paiute Indians residing in the valley just north of Ridgecrest, were powerless in stopping the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) from building the first Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 to transport fresh water 223 miles into Los Angeles. By 1926, Owens Lake dried completely.

Piper said water officials discriminated against disadvantaged lake-area residents by not solving the dust problem, forcing them to live in unhealthy conditions made worse by dust storms. Piper believes the dust is responsible for high incidents of chronic illnesses, lung-related diseases and cancer in the area. She began her research because of the health issues. When Piper was a child, two of her friends died of autoimmune disorders and her sister developed lupus. Piper had bouts with pneumonia and bronchitis. While in college, she often heard about new cases of illnesses and occasionally death. In graduate school, Piper looked more closely at the issue while studying environmental racism and justice.

"The sad thing is that this hasn't received the kind of media attention it should have," said Piper, noting her book is the only thing that links the dust to health problems. "The department of water and power has suppressed a lot of information. They didn't want the public to know about the health issues. They've denied it for decades. Even now, they claim it's not a problem. But statistically, this is not normal."

In recent years, Piper said LADWP officials have redirected small amounts of water back into the lake. She said sprinkler systems also have been installed in dry areas to assist with dust control. Studies on spacer.gifthe issue were conducted in the 1980s by the state and various organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency. Dust levels were found in violation of EPA standards.

"Left in the Dust," published by Palgrave Macmillan, is due for release Aug. 1.

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