Note: I wrote this alternate history after attending a community forum on environmental hazards in the Port of Providence and nearby neighborhoods.
Routine releases means emissions in normal operation, emissions that might happen daily or more rarely, and they’re frequently regulated by permits … In accidental releases, planning is very important. –Barbara Morin, Providence Department of Health
We’re always planning. We’re looking at every event. –Michael Borg, Providence Emergency Management Agency
The next day, the hazmat teams descended on the Port of Providence, because they were responsible for reducing harm from hazardous materials. They were just doing their jobs when they gave the Univar and Motiva facilities and the staff at the Enterprise propane and National Grid liquid natural gas tanks a timeline and a protocol for distributing or neutralizing their fossil fuel and chemical holdings. The people working there were glad to cooperate, knowing that every day of dismantlement increased the chances of survival for a third-grader or an old man on oxygen or a school of fish, and knowing that as they did this work, their livelihoods were assured in the neighborhood.
There’s no good way to put natural gas or coal back in the ground–not every process is reversible, not every wound can be healed. A council of South Providence residents doled out the natural gas and propane out to the rest of the city household by household, rationing it for heat and cooking, knowing that there would be no more when it was gone. They built big, ramshackle structures out of scrap metal and wood from dismantled houses across the train tracks, and colored them with chalk and festooned them with fabric to make sure the drivers could see them from far away.
The people of South Providence made room for the people who’d worked in the Port, and learned from them and the hazmat teams how to work with the chemicals without harm. Sometimes they were able to reduce them to harmless compounds, or suspend them in substances that would neutralize them. Sometimes the best they could do is parcel them out into smaller quantities, to be stored above water. Filtration, solution, transformation. Prevention: better than cure. The people who’d worked in the Port, and the hazmat teams, learned from the people of South Providence other sets of skills: arguing, running repairs, improvisation, rapid calculation, code-switching, field medicine. They all breathed more easily.
The next hundred-year storm hit before the tanks were fully emptied. A lot of fish and seabirds died, too many to count, and two humans trapped in a car, and an entire long row of windbreaking saplings that the people of South Providence, old and new, had planted a couple of years before. They succumbed to the chemical-infused saltwater; they stood like thin gravestones.
It could have been worse, it could have been better. The rest of the city’s people took the people of South Providence into their houses elsewhere and took turns cleaning and airing the flooded buildings, breaking down the ones that were too badly damaged or too far into the floodplain to make sense saving; they took it in shifts so that no one had to have too much exposure to the poisonous debris. They noted and charted the lie of the land, where the water wanted to go. They thickened and lined the walls of their homes with torn fabric, scavenged wood, leftover office paper, dry grass; they cooked on tiny solar stoves outdoors in summer, and saved their gas and wood for winter.
The people who were young during that storm were almost old when the next one hit, and things went very differently. All the tanks were long empty of poison; some were reefs for the shellfish that were just starting to come back. Long sections of train track ran quietly under the water, coated in algae that had evolved to digest the tar and creosote that soaked the railroad ties. People’s weather senses were better now, and with the help of predictive technology, they knew when to leave and let the water rush through what was left, if that was where it wanted to go. The city’s high points had food stores and hospitals; the city’s low points were thick with marsh grass shading into waterweed, and tiny crabs, and sand fleas, and lugworms, hunkering down to wait out a cleaner tide.