The Incinerator Does Not Exist: Sensory Engagement with Toxic Potentials

By Chloe Ahmann, George Washington University

On the streets of Curtis Bay, a community in south Baltimore, talk of the local trash incinerator is pervasive. People complain about its pungent odor, lament its effects on air quality, and worry about its ties to respiratory ailments. Amidst an already congested industrial landscape, where the cumulative effects of toxic exposure have long impacted land and local health, the plant is a major object of anxiety and sensory engagement. But the incinerator does not exist. Instead, residents are engaged in a precautionary project to prevent it.

Image 1. The still-empty incinerator site. Photo by United Workers.

During fieldwork, this seemed to me to be a phenomenological enigma: residents in Curtis Bay were sensing the materially non-existent. Here, I briefly consider how and why locals seemed to experience the incinerator and ask what we might learn from their anticipatory sensing about the politics and poesis of risk.

Risk Experience

Anthropologists have long understood “risk” to be an orientation toward the future rendered knowable through data from the past. Actuarial charts, climate models, and even personalized categories like “cancer risk” all forecast uncertain futures through recourse to accumulated knowledge. But the literature on risk experience—on the concept’s affective and sensorial dimensions—rarely depicts those exposed to risk doing similar work. Instead, risk seems to be reserved for expert sensing with even citizen science tending to depend on expert tools  (see Polleri, this series).

My time in Curtis Bay suggests, on the contrary, that locals invoked the lived experience of exposure to help predict the incinerator’s toxic potential. Though few used the language of risk (with the important exception of local activists, who readily invoked the term in their conversations with government and industry), their orientation toward the plant often seemed to incorporate its logic. In their conversations about the proposed facility and in the meetings where they strategized to fight it, residents talked about the ways in which they already felt toxicity in Curtis Bay, alongside the effects that the incinerator might, could, or would have on their daily life experience.

In other words, they frequently engaged with the possibility of the incinerator by invoking accumulated sensory data.

This in and of itself was not surprising. There are plenty of accumulated “data” available in Curtis Bay to suggest what the incinerator might look, smell, or feel like. Indeed, residents have five generations of exposure to environmental degradation. Curtis Bay is a hub of the petrochemical industry. It already hosts the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator. It’s home to the city’s landfill, to coal piers, to oil tanks, to military facilities, and to millions of pounds of hazardous waste. Residents are used to watching smoke billow from stacks. They’re accustomed to unpleasant smells and stilted breathing. Most have corporeally attuned to living in a heavy industrial space (compare Kenner, this series). As I show below, their accumulated knowledge differs significantly from that brought to bear on the incinerator by Maryland’s regulatory agency. And what captivated me most about this contrast was that their anticipatory sensing seemed to embody a critique of the state.

Though locals frequently exclaimed that the incinerator had exacerbated their asthma and though they often denounced its odor in the present tense (saying things like, “the incinerator smells awful,” drawing the future-possible into the sense-able present), here I limit my analysis to contrary ways of seeing. Regulators and residents visualized pollution quite differently, and this difference shaped their evaluations of the plant’s acceptability.

Ways of Seeing

Besides oddly colored chemical clouds that occasionally make their way across the city skyline, toxicants are essentially invisible in the air. But there are several ways to “see” toxicity (see Fukuda, this series). As Maryland’s director of air quality explained to me last spring, “What scientists see with technology is truly unbelievable. We fly airplanes, we float balloons, we check monitors and run models, all to help fill in the state’s pollution picture. And then we figure out what part of the picture needs to change,” he said, “in order to reduce pollution risk.”

Expert ways of filling in the state’s “pollution picture” chiefly see from above—literally, with the help of aerial maps and smart balloons, and schematically through graphs, spreadsheets, and emissions models that translate past and present levels of toxicity into highly specialized, prohibitively expensive, predictive forms of data. But seeing from above has certain limitations. For one, the eye attuned to ambient conditions misses fine-grained variance—a condition exacerbated by the removal, in 2008, of the only state air monitor ever sited in Curtis Bay (it was sent to a more statistically “representative” neighborhood). Standardized modes of sight also slight the effects of accumulation: computer programs designed to predict the effects of a “single pollutant” from a “single plant” within a discrete span of time can in no way capture the felt reality of living for years among several dozen chemical-emitting industries. State-sanctioned ways of seeing help explain why Maryland officials aren’t too worried about the air in Curtis Bay. And they clarify how a new source—the incinerator—was permitted for construction in the region.

In Curtis Bay, in contrast, residents see from amidst, and toxicants have long made themselves known to the eye through processes of settling, drifting, and aggregation. They’ve appeared in the way blonde hair used to turn chartreuse when children swam in the cove (they don’t swim there anymore), as soot staining window sills and white sheets, and in the color snow sometimes turns when it hits ground (“rainbow,” one of my informants explained, like asphalt tinged with gasoline). Pollution here is not limited to individual plants or isolated in time. It flows. It sticks to things. It piles up.

Time is central to its accretion.

So while measuring exposure to pollutants by epidemiological standards is notoriously difficult and while there are certain details expert vision misses, those who have long called the region home invoke visual evidence to assert Curtis Bay’s toxicity. And that evidence comprises a very different set of accumulated knowledge then used to generate predictions.

Images 2–6. Students imagine what the incinerator will look like. Drawings from 2014.

These are versions of the local “pollution picture” made by high-school students living in Curtis Bay. Like the dozens of residents I’ve asked about the incinerator, they imagine giant smokestacks pumping out dark clouds of toxic matter that blacken the sky and condition early death, like other factories that have historically populated the community. In stark contrast with computer-generated images of the future site that depict the plant as “clean” and “green,” these clouds suffuse young students’ sketches, along with images of litter, diesel trucks, and soiled grounds drawn from the experience of living in a heavy industrial region.

I haven’t had the privilege of soliciting art from everyone I’ve asked about the plant, but few describe the empty site as inert. Residents regularly summon images of trash, soot, and smoke when explaining why they’re wary of the incinerator. In the process, they visually populate the site with the threat of “one more plant” and make claims about its unacceptability. Similar images decorate flyers that activists post across the region. Collectively, these sensory practices upset “expert” depictions and mobilize preventative action against the proposed facility.

Image 7. Campaign flyers depict a toxic future.

Sensory Compensation

Before I began following Curtis Bay’s stop-the-incinerator campaign, I presumed sensation was a bodily orientation toward the present—something you experience in an immediate sense, something you viscerally feel. But residents’ sensory engagement with the absent incinerator has not been presentist: it has inhabited the past imperfect to project a toxic future.

Through embodied practices of seeing, smelling, and breathing, residents of Curtis Bay have predicted the threat of the incinerator, anticipating its toxic potential through recourse to decades of accumulated knowledge. In the process, they’ve developed a sort of sensory compensation to supplement official ways of seeing. Regulatory bureaucracies, after all, are notoriously wary of non-codifiable knowledge. Their predictive mechanisms are ill-equipped to deal with what people feel and the ways that they experience. Indeed, while the agency with the authority to permit the incinerator calculates risk without attending to accumulation, residents’ predictions are deeply wedded to the senses, and their senses to the cumulative burdens of Curtis Bay’s environmental history.

There is both a politics and a poesis to this heterotopic sensing. It conjures up a toxic future to prevent it from ever coming into being.

In drawing parallels between residents’ sensory anticipation and various “expert” technologies of projection, I am not making an argument of equivalence. Nor is the point to subsume residents’ behavior under the authoritative category of “risk.” Rather, my stake is to show that that there is something more than reactionary about the senses: embodied engagement with the toxic world can also be predictive, productive, and preventive.


This essay is part of Sensorial Engagements with a Toxic World, a special series curated by Chisato Fukuda.

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