Michael Ceraolo [photo by John Burroughs]

Texas City

 
April 16, 1947
“This is a day of synthetic living”
                                                 a day
of better living through chemistry,
and,
        at the same time,
of better death through chemistry too,
the paradox of a petrochemical product
                                                           Specifically:
the miracle fertilizer,
                              the deadly explosive,
ammonium nitrate
                               On this day
over five million pounds had been loaded on ships
that would then leave port and set sail,
                                                         delivering
the miracle fertilizer to war-ravaged countries
who would use it to feed themselves
                                                        But
the deadly explosive intervened first
A hundred eves of destruction had passed
uncelebrated,
                     unnoticed even,
                                             until
the ship carrying the load caught on fire just after 8 AM
The fire department rushed to fight the fire
(there was no longer a fire boat in the port town:
the corporatized waterfront lay outside
the part of the town that paid taxes,
                                                     and
the corporations wouldn’t pay for it out of the goodness of their hearts)
The sight of the sea boiling,
mixed with the pretty smoke from the fire,
drew a crowd of spectators
9:12 AM
                  Explosion,
powerful enough to register on a seismograph
hundreds of miles from the scene,
powerful enough to toss one-ton chunks of metal
two-and-a-half miles,
incinerating almost the whole town,
                                                     killing
the entire twenty-seven-member Fire Department
and more than five hundred others;
the exact death toll would never be known
The town would win a lawsuit against the federal government
for failing to warn the town of the dangers
of ammonium nitrate
The case would make its way all the way
to the Supreme Court:
“Defendant did know”
“it was dangerous to manufacture,
                                                 dangerous to ship,
                                                                            and dangerous to use”
Unfortunately,
this was a dissenting opinion;
the majority voted to reverse
on the shakiest of grounds (if that),
that the government had the “discretion”
to not warn its citizens of danger
if it served some higher purpose
(as defined by the government)
More from the dissent:
“This was a man-made disaster”
“the disaster was caused by forces
set in motion by the Government,
completely controlled or controllable by it”
“The Government was liable
                                            If not,
the ancient and discredited doctrine
that ‘The King Can Do No Wrong’
has not been uprooted”
                                   As,
                                         to this day,
                                                           it has not—

 

* * * * *

This piece is an excerpt from Michael Ceraolo‘s ongoing project The De-Greening of America, an environmental history poem.

We also recommend:

Euclid Creek – available from Deep Cleveland Books
Cleveland Scores Early – from Kendra Steiner Editions
Cleveland Haiku – from Green Panda Press

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