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'Sunny Chernobyl': Beauty In A Haze Of Pollution

In some of the dirtiest places on Earth, author and environmentalist Andrew Blackwell found some beauty. His book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl, tours the deforestation of the Amazon, the oil sand mines in Canada and the world's most polluted city, located in China.

Blackwell says his ode to polluted locales is a bid for re-engagement with places people have shrunk away from in disgust.

Radioactive To Its Core

His first stop was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl.

"Because it's [a] quarantined, radioactive zone, everyone has left a long time ago, and very few people spend any time there," he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "You've got to go in spring, obviously, and it's just full of trees and birds and insects. And it's sort of become this huge, accidental wilderness preserve."

In a way, nature has taken over.

"The birds and the bees and the animals and the wolves are not aware, and/or don't care about radioactive contamination the way we do," Blackwell says. "There's nothing like it, and it's an absolutely unique place, and most of it is just flat-out beautiful."

Yet throughout Blackwell's trip, a Geiger counter's beeps serve as a constant reminder of contamination. At one point, while walking through the thick forest around the reactor, Blackwell's guide tells him not to walk on the moss. The moss, the mushrooms and the trees have absorbed the radioactive particles, he says.

"So it's not just a place that has been contaminated with radiation and radioactive particles on it," Blackwell says. "They are sort of in it, which is another thing that makes it so incredibly fascinating ... the ecosystem itself has sort of incorporated that pollution."

Smells Like Tar

Along with trips to places that might seem more likely to be polluted — India and China, for example — Blackwell takes a trip to Alberta, Canada. The oil industry has set up shop on huge tar sands deposits there, which would supply the prospective Keystone XL pipeline. In January, President Obama rejected an application to build the 1,700-mile pipeline.

Andrew Blackwell is a journalist and filmmaker living in New York City.
Lucian Read / Courtesy of Rodale Books
Courtesy of Rodale Books
Andrew Blackwell is a journalist and filmmaker living in New York City.

The smell of tar lingers in the air in Alberta — sometimes infiltrating the town of Fort McMurray, but always choking the air near the tar sands.

"There's no way to dig that out of the ground without it just smelling like that everywhere," Blackwell says. "In fact, there are places along the river where naturally deposits of oil sand have been exposed, and you can even smell it there, even if it's not being dug up."

The tar pit is surrounded by pine trees and a beautiful Canadian landscape, including Crane Lake.

"Crane Lake is the sort of rehabilitated pond that the oil sand companies like to show off to convince people that they can kind of put nature back once they're done tearing it up," he says.

But there are lakes nearby that show no signs of rehabilitation. The tailings ponds, Blackwell says, hold the wastewater from the oil extraction process.

"So it's these huge poison lakes, and every once in a while a flock of ducks lands on one of these lakes and dies, just by virtue of having landed there in this poison water," he says. "And that's sort of a running controversy in Canada. Ducks are sort of the poster children for what the cost of oil sands are."

Challenging The Activists

Blackwell considers himself an environmentalist, but he also has some problems with environmental activists.

"I think there's often a temptation when you're an activist to spin things always in your direction," he says, "and I sympathize with that urge, but my belief is that we really have to be as absolutely skeptical and rigorous of things, whether or not they serve our own beliefs and politics."

He says those kinds of tests make personal beliefs stronger. Blackwell's travels are a challenge, too, questioning notions of beauty about places that have been ignored for their environmental filth.

"I describe this as a love letter to the world's most polluted places not because I love pollution, but because I think by using these places as horror stories, we've kind of chosen to disengage from them," he says. "So that's why I thought, I'm going to go to polluted places and find what's still natural, what's still beautiful, what's still worth caring about."

In these polluted places, Blackwell says, "there's still an environment, even if it's not what we wish it would be."

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