A Concrete Experience

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The
California coastal mountains were uniformly brown and bone-dry when
I boarded a plane bound for Florida. This was my first trip, my
first exploration for a new home. I watched my first Atlantic sunrise
the next morning as the plane approached the Jacksonville airport.

I
also watched the ground and what I saw amazed me. Water. Lakes,
rivers, and streams dotted the inland countryside. Green. All the
landscape around the water was a deep, rich green. It looked wonderful
to me.

Soon
I was sitting outside in the fresh, cool morning, enfolded in the
Florida humidity, and marveling at the green grass and the palm
trees and the strange plants that looked like green swords sticking
up every which way. Then I noticed something else. The power poles
seemed to be made out of concrete.

My
friend arrived and we drove into the central part of north Florida
along broad, clean concrete highways cut through forests of tall
green pines. Once again I was struck by the vibrant colors and all
the waterways we crossed and, once again, by the huge concrete towers
that carried the high-voltage power lines across the countryside.

The
city, our destination, appeared to have been built right into the
forest. Mature oaks and pines stood over mile after mile of homes
in attractive subdivisions. Parked in the driveway at last, I got
out and looked around at the picturesque park-like scene and then
I noticed something else. The homes were all made out of concrete.

After
living in California for thirty-five years, I had forgotten that
people used brick and mortar and concrete-block for residential
construction, because in California such houses would fall down.
Florida is not threatened by big destructive earthquakes, however,
only rare little tremblers, so these construction materials are
safe to use. Moreover, the Florida homeowner can solve the serious
problems of wood-eating insects and wood-rot in a humid climate
by building with concrete. It makes good sense.

Concrete
is also economical in Florida. The entire peninsula, once a seabed,
is made out of limestone and sand, the chief ingredients of concrete.
With the raw materials under foot and with the advantages of the
product obvious to anyone who thinks about it, concrete is the choice
building material in Florida. Maybe that's why the environmentalists
want to put a stop to it.

I
discovered the touchiness of this subject almost immediately. While
driving around the county one afternoon, I came across a chain-link
fence and a tall sandbank covered with grass that stretched for
a half-mile or so along the road. Behind the bank rose new buildings
and pristine smokestacks, but the place appeared to be abandoned.
Miles from any town or even a noticeable habitation, I wondered
what it could be? Asking about it later, I was briskly informed
that it was a new cement plant, production halted by court order
pending another environmental review. Curious, I discovered that
a nearby city had approved this plant to boost its local economy
in one of the poorest rural areas in Florida. Environmentalists
in an adjacent city objected on the usual grounds of air pollution,
water pollution, noise, and road maintenance expense to the taxpayer;
that is, anything to keep the business in court and out of operation.

To
enliven any table talk around here, all I have to do is ask about
limestone mines or cement plants. It's like bringing up the redwoods
in California. The response is the same. The analogy is also very
close. Redwood trees grow naturally and very well in certain California
environments, the coastal valley fog regions. Redwood lumber is
both rot resistant and insect resistant, which makes it ideal for
constructing earthquake resistant wood-frame houses. Most of the
coastal redwoods were cut during the Nineteenth Century and used
for houses in the San Francisco Bay area. They grew back. Today
these dense forests are off-limits to the lumber industry and redwood
is very expensive indeed in California. Concrete in Florida could
be going the way of the redwoods.

Relatively
cheap concrete products require two industrial operations, limestone
mining and cement manufacturing. Moving concrete products requires
roads and trucks. Environmentalists can easily attack production
along any of these lines.

Since
Florida is made out of limestone, mining it is an open-pit operation
that takes up space and leaves holes in the ground. It's basically
a matter of blasting the rock about once a month, digging it out,
and then processing it. Environmentalists claim that the blasting
is hard on local nerves and that it could disrupt the natural flow
of water through the underground caverns. These caverns are otherwise
well known for spontaneously collapsing and leaving big holes in
the ground. The sinkholes are a reality, the diversion of water
flow underground is a fantasy. Whether the blasting causes schizophrenia
in local people, dogs, cats, raccoons, or manatees is never explicitly
addressed.

Cement
plants are supposedly the prime source of air and water pollution
from dust, noise pollution from the noise, and traffic pollution
from all the trucks coming and going. Not being deliberately stupid
by any means, the people who own and operate these plants do not
try to build them in urban centers, but tend to build them out in
the middle of nowhere. True, there might be a river or lake or stream
within three miles of the plant, that would not be remarkable in
Florida, but three miles is still three miles, and people design
these plants to pollute nothing outside of their own perimeter.
Environmentalists ignore these small facts and focus on rust-belt
models built up in their imaginations of what it might have been
like a century ago.

The
environmentalists I've met here in Florida also decry urban expansion.
Down with the new subdivisions! It makes me worry about them. They
speak these denunciations from inside a concrete house built within
an old subdivision. Obvious contradictions aside, they evidently
have made some kind of progress on their own terms. The new concrete
plant sits idle and the new subdivisions are mostly wood-framed
houses built on concrete perimeter foundations, the standard in
California. Walls and roofs are a composite of wood chips and glue
under the siding and shingles, guaranteed to rot out before any
mortgage is paid off, although it will stand up in an earthquake.
So what have the environmentalists accomplished here? I don't know,
but hey, with this kind of logic, maybe I could sell concrete houses
in California! I think I'd better call the Sierra Club in the morning.

August
16, 2001

Robert
Klassen [send him mail] is
a medical technician and writer. Here’s
his web site.

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