Dear Tom,

If you walk or drive about a half a mile east from my house, you cross a concrete bridge over a wide, shallow river. It’s unspectacular. When it’s dry, it becomes wide swathes of rocks with just a narrow channel. When we’ve had lots of rain, it’s a muddy, churning flow. A few years ago, in late winter, after it had frozen and then partially thawed and started to break apart, it froze again, leaving jagged chunks of ice poking upward. That was cool.

My favorite times to cross the river are on early morning runs when there’s mist rising and I can glimpse the pink sunrise. A couple of times I’ve seen bald eagles coasting high between its banks.

It’s the Genesee. One of just a few North American rivers that flow northward. It has a couple of really spectacular spots where it pushes through a gorge and descends over a waterfall. But not very near my town. Here it’s just a river where, on the hottest days in summer, people park their cars on the loose rocks and wade in to cool off.

It’s also a Superfund site. The Superfund program was begun by congress in 1980 when they passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).[1] According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website (as of this morning), the program is “responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.”[2]

The river a half mile from my house is not especially clean. It’s possible to fish in the Genesee, but I’ve been told that you shouldn’t eat what you catch. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation classifies the section near my house as Class C: “suitable for general recreation use and support of aquatic life, but not as a water supply or for public bathing.”[3] On the other hand, the data supporting this classification is really old. The water hasn’t been officially assessed since 1999. The river might be cleaner now than it used to be. Or not.

The Superfund site on the Genesee is upriver from where I live—about 30 miles south, just upstream from the village of Wellsville. It’s where the Sinclair Refining Company (formed in 1901) was generating waste like “tank sludges from a solvent plant, sludges from an oil separator, acids, pesticides, waste oil and heavy metals.”[4] These were put into a landfill near the river but due to erosion leaked into the river itself.

This became a Superfund site in 1983 and the EPA has been working ever since on cleaning it up—enacting various measures to keep contaminants out of the river. They’ve made progress and, as of a 2012 report, “all systems were operating as designed and are protective of human health and the environment.”[5]

How do I know all this? There is an excellent website run by the EPA that details exactly what they’ve been doing.

I wanted to point this out to you because, for me, it demonstrates two things key to our democracy:

1) Environmental regulation is sometimes very important, especially for businesses (like the Sinclair Refining Company, later ARCO) that manufacture “heavy oils and grease for lubrication applications, light oil for fuel, naphtha, gasoline, aniline, lighter fluid and paraffin.” The problems with their landfill originated in a less-regulated era. I would rather not return to a time when fewer regulations are in place, putting my watershed and my family’s and neighbors’ health in danger.
2) Citizens need to be able to find out exactly what their government is up to. The EPA website is helpfully organized and contains both overall summaries and detailed information. I thought I was going to have to do a lot of digging to find out about our local Superfund site, but it was all there, easy to find, on the website.

I’d like you to be a champion for these two things. First, regulations that keep businesses from doing harm to their neighbors. Putting their waste into a landfill near the river was in the best interest of Sinclair Refining Company/ARCO, but it wasn’t in the best interest of the people who live near the Genesee. That’s why regulation matters. Second, I’d like you to champion transparent communication of government information so that citizens can know what their government is doing. There are, as you know, some signs that the Trump administration wants to control what information government agencies (especially ones associated with environmental concerns) share with the public. Could you please tell President Trump that citizens need access to as much information as possible in this area?

I don’t know if my messages have been getting through to you or not, since you haven’t written back. So I’ve decided to take my political action to the next level. I’m committing, for the month of February (it’s a short month), to call your office every weekday and talk to someone in person.

Don’t worry; I plan to emphasize ideas that I think you, as a conservative, should support:

1) Not allocating taxpayer money for a border wall. Have you seen the estimates of how much this is going to cost? As a fiscal conservative, I know that you don’t want to fund expensive projects that add to the national debt.
2) Coming up with a plan for health care so that when you repeal the ACA, there’s something to take its place. I know that you want to make sure that health care for Americans is better, not worse, than what we had before. Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House. This is your moment; use it well.
3) Helping America maintain (or return to) its identity as the most welcoming place for immigrants in the world—a place that declares to anyone who values hard work, freedom, and entrepreneurship that this is the place for them. When people flee from conflicts instigated by extremists, they can come to the US to experience what is great about America.

I’m looking forward to lots of friendly conversations with folks in your office in the next month.

Your devoted constituent,



2 thoughts on “Upstream

  1. Hmm I need to rethink some of my wading choices. Also, thank you for modelling calm when it’s tempting to give into sputtering frustration.


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