My Chemical Mountain
by Corina Vacco
(Berkeley, CA, USA)
"We live by the best landfill ever. I flipped my dirk bike there once. Plus I’ve got a sketchbook full of uranium monsters. My friend Cornpup likes to show off the weird bumps on his back for a dollar. And Charlie, he’ll drink red creek water on a dare."
Not long ago, I found myself living in Western New York, near one of the most dangerous landfills in the United States.
The landfill was located in a residential neighborhood, adjacent to an elementary school and playground. It contained chemical sludge from decades of dumping by local industry, and it also contained radioactive waste left over from the Manhattan Project.
The local government knew that these contaminants had leached into nearby groundwater and soil.
People who lived in the immediate area had received official letters ordering them to stop eating vegetables from their gardens. There were reports of children swimming in the contaminated creek. A woman wrote the newspaper to say that her son’s shoe had melted when he stepped in a green puddle near the landfill’s base.
Officially Declared Safe
I had so many questions—What do you mean I live twenty minutes from this landfill? Can’t someone stop all these children from playing there? How is this situation affecting my groundwater? What happens next? Turns out there was a town meeting scheduled to discuss the status of the landfill. I decided to go, just to listen, but I ended up getting inspired to fight.
One by one, earnest, blue-collar, concerned citizens confronted a panel of industry “scientists” and chemical company representatives and demanded that the landfill be cleaned up. One by one, they were ignored, treated like garbage, marginalized. The landfill was officially declared safe.
End of story? Not quite.
I met a teacher who worked at an elementary school adjacent to one of the landfills. I interviewed people, who not realizing the danger, grew up swimming in creek water that changed colors from dyes dumped by a nearby factory. And I was inspired by a teenage boy who raged against the pollution and those responsible. I felt angry and inspired. I thought, I need to write about this, the town, the people, all of it.
Shortly thereafter, my main character Jason’s voice appeared in my mind while I was walking my dog through the city. I’d heard about this happening to other writers, so I knew just what to do—I asked him questions: What is it like living near a landfill? Why do you swim in the creek when you know it’s contaminated? Are you angry about what happened to your father? He answered, “Of course, I’m angry. And I’m gonna get revenge.”
I listened quietly to what he had to say, then drove to the foot of the landfill, parked my car, cracked the window so I could smell the filthy air blowing in from a nearby asphalt plant, and I began to write what felt like a love letter to a cleaner world, an ode to justice for those harmed by rogue polluters.
MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN (Random House, 2013) is a story about three boys who cope with the hopelessness of their toxic town by immersing themselves in the thrills of pollution—riding their dirt bikes down the landfill’s slopes, breaking into abandoned factories, and swimming in a contaminated creek—until one of the boys decides it’s time to stand up to the rogue chemical company that’s taken everything from them.
It’s a story about finding your voice when the powers that be want to silence you. It won the Delacorte Prize for a First YA Novel. And I really hope you get a chance to check it out.
For more information, please visit my website