How Safe Are You?
Danger: The Environment Groundwater contamination and air pollution are both prevalent in scattered areas of the state. Relative Radon Emanation Potential of New Hampshire’s Bedrock The state’s radon risk corresponds to the kinds of rock in a given region. Most of Hillsborough and Merrimack counties appear as blue to show a low risk, but a given home there still has a 10- to 20-percent chance of high concentrations of the colorless and odorless gas in the basement. It can cause lung cancer, and occurs naturally in bedrock. It’s worth testing for. Source: N.H. Dept of Environmental Services These four city maps show threats to groundwater ranging from old gas storage tanks to known spills of MtBE or other chemicals. The red dots concentrate in Manchester along major highways, in the densely populated downtown and at Manchester Airport. Nashua and Laconia have a similar pattern, with the worst problems in industrial parks. The most intense pollution for Portsmouth is in the core city and throughout the Pease Development Authority, site of a former Air Force base. Source: N.H. Dept. of Environmental Services Leaking Underground Storage Tanks The chart on the left shows that leaking underground fuel storage tanks are concentrated where the population is, in the south I-93 tier and the Seacoast. But contamination is less dangerous there because it’s often in towns with municipal water. Wells are more predominant up north. Air Pollution Sources The middle chart shows in blue all the smoke stacks and other stationary sources of air pollution, such as chemical factories. The crosses are all the same size, showing no difference between the 450-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Bow and the much smaller municipal steam-heating furnace in Concord. The dots are much too big for the size of the map. The scale suggests each one is about 10 miles in diameter. Hazardous Waste Generators The red chart on the right of hazardous waste sites has the same problem of scale, but worse. Each dot takes up so much space on the map the whole southern part of the state looks like one gigantic cesspool, and it certainly isn’t. The dots mark old and new Superfund sites and brownfields, most of which have been cleaned up. Source: N.H. Dept. of Environmental Services Say It Isn't So You know you can freeze to death on Mount Washington or fall a long way to doom if you get lost in the fog. But were you aware the summit (of all places) often has the worst air pollution in the state? The state’s highest peak juts into the jet-stream crud from midwestern coal-fired power plants as it heads to London and the Azores. The southern parts of Cheshire, Hillsborough and Rockingham counties have the greatest number of bad air days in the flatlands. But, according to Jeff Underhill, an air resources engineer, “Most of New Hampshire has air that’s quite good,” The worst problems are just a few times a year.” Where's the Worst? The worst mercury pollution in fish lies in the wind shadows from the PSNH coal-fired power plant in Bow and a similar plant in Portsmouth, Schiller Station. That’s according to a recent study by the Hubbard Brook Research Center. The worst MtBE pollution in public drinking water is in the southeast part of the state, where most of the population and gasoline spills are concentrated. But every big town in the state shows up as a smear of red and pink on the state’s global information system maps of petroleum contamination and old storage tanks. Not to worry if you want to live in there, that’s why they have municipal water. Danger: Natural Disasters Of Biblical Proportions Down in the flood The massive floods of May 2006 and October 2005 were reminders any creek or river in this state can surge beyond its banks and threaten its dams. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Cold River near Alstead normally flows at the rate of 100 cubic feet per second. On Oct. 9, 2005, it was passing 21,800 cubic feet a second, a once-every-500-years flood. The previous recorded high was 6,700 cubic feet in 1973, the summer it rained for week. The nearby Ashuelot River peaked at 11,700 feet per second, a 100-year flood, and the largest since control dams were built upstream in the 1940s and 50s. Ken Toppin, a federal hydrologist, said the Lamprey River near Newmarket had a record event last May, exceeding any previous flood there by a good five feet. Salem was hard hit too, because part of the business district sits in a flood plain. The Spicket River runs through the city and it closed down a lot of commerce. “The most dangerous places are these known flood zones,” Toppin says. His flood plain data is available at the site http://nh.water.usgs.gov. It’s a resource worth checking before buying a house. So is the local planning department. When the sea rises in anger But back to the Azores — beware a tsunami from that quadrant. State geologist David Wunsch says the vast cone of a volcano there could collapse into the Atlantic and displace enough sea to send us a tidal wave. “That’s the biggest threat,” says Wunsch. “They can happen in New England. We received a tsunami from the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.” Of course, a big meteorite splashing into mid-ocean would cause the worst tidal wave. It can happen. That’s where the Gulf of Mexico came from. When the beach becomes the channel You prefer global warming? In a hundred years the Hill District of downtown Portsmouth could be an island, with Strawbery Banke 15 feet under. That’s the unlikely, but worst, outcome projected by the Climate Change Research Center at UNH. The same university would find itself near the beach, by the way. The good news is that the Port Authority could probably cease dredging the Piscataqua River. Ocean-going keels would never again snap the submerged power cables to the twin drawbridges into Maine. It’s not San Francisco, but … Wunsch says the state experiences mild quakes along a line of epicenters that follow the Merrimack River north to about Tilton and then cuts northeast through the Lakes Region. The spasms are not from the continental ramming contests that make the whole Pacific a ring of fire. But a moderately severe quake here could do major damage, Wunsch says. The building codes take little account for tremors, he says, and the granite bedrock transmits the full energy of quake much too well.“Some think our quakes are caused by isostatic rebound,” Wunsch says. “Glaciers a mile thick melted after the Ice Age, and the rocks might be springing back. It takes thousands of years.” Danger: Byways Asphalt Jungle It’s a gauntlet of high-speed tailgating and sudden gridlock on Friday nights. Powerful lawmakers call the 19-mile stretch of Interstate 93 from Massachusetts to Manchester the worst piece of major highway in the state. Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bob Letourneau, R-Derry, share the same nightmare: a 50-car pileup that kills 20 or 30 commuters. They call it “the big one.” Nobody died in a bumper car crash half that size Dec. 30 in the southbound lane near Penacook. It was pure luck. To save lives, the state will spend around $500 million to widen I-93 to eight lanes all the way north to the I-293 split. But statewide accident rates point to at least 20 worse superhighway sections. South I-93 failed to make the bad list because the volume is so heavy. As a result the number of wrecks per traveler mile is low. The commuter sees more accidents per week. It feels dangerous, and it is dangerous. Craig Green, the administrator for highway design, says he drew up the list to meet a federal mandate to provide raw accident rates for a national study. He’d need to read all the accident reports and visit all the road segments to give a solid engineering opinion about each location. “That’s a critical caveat,” Green says. “If people say they know a worse place than these, they might be right.” Given that disclaimer, here are the dubious winners. Worst Interstate segment The runaway leader is a 1,500-foot link of I-93 between the Cannon Mountain Tramway and Route 118. It has .956 accidents per million driver miles. The weather is dangerous when the thousand-foot-high facing cliffs create a wind tunnel. Worse, the fork between the two state roads confuses drivers leaving Franconia Notch toward Littleton. “There’s an optical illusion as I-93 curves to the left. People get into the wrong lane,” Green says. Next worse? A half-mile of I-93 nearby in the Notch, with .56 accidents per million miles. The spectacular scenery can be distracting. Worst arterial highway A half-mile stretch of Route 3 in Concord near the Pembroke line causes 3.734 crashes per million driver miles. The road narrows from two lanes eastbound to one at the top of the hill near Airport Road. The right lane is a poorly marked exit only. “They try to move over to the right to stay on Route 3,” Green says. “That causes collisions.” Next worst? Two hundred yards of Danville Road in Plaistow, with 3.503 accidents per million miles. Is Motorcycle Week dangerous? Not the way it was in the 1970s when a dozen members of the Die Hard Bike Club went to prison for some related misdeeds one wild Saturday night. And not since the 1980s when the Hell’s Angels barricaded the biggest intersection of Laconia for a rumble with some rivals. These days the event draws in weekday lawyers dressed like Vikings on $50,000 bikes. The big hazard is highway drunks in the rolling army of bikers that swell the Lakes Region to a city of 200,000. Danger: Sociological Breakdowns Most of the human threats to safety and quality of life correlate with poverty, illiteracy and education level. The high school dropouts make a good proxy for all those factors, a census class that clusters in small rural communities up north and in the inner cities. Here are the percentages of adult high school dropouts by town, listing the highest and lowest 15 towns. Many of these same towns are the lowest and highest by median income as well. Danger: The Unknown Most worst-case scenarios are rooted in what-ifs and unknowns and the Seacoast rules in this category. Consider the 10-mile corridor between the Seabrook nuclear power plant and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, with its nuclear subs and ICBMs. The Piscataqua River is full of hazards, too, starting with oil and natural gas tankers navigating a narrow channel and bridges. Loaded KC13s fly out of Pease on refueling missions. Even the rare tsunami could strike here, with a few hours of warning from the Azores, where a collapsing volcanic lava dome could send 20-foot waves over the coast. For the truly unknown, you don’t have to look much farther than Exeter, where, in 1965, the original “close encounter” story was experienced by a terrified kid and an Exeter cop who watched a huge glowing object drift over a field and then disappear. You say you don’t think flying saucers are a threat? Tell that to Betty and Barney Hill, the couple of Seacoast residents who claim to have spent a couple of hours aboard a UFO being probed by little gray men with big eyes in what would become the most famous case of alien abduction: “The Interrupted Journey.”
In Conclusion It’s clearly naive to play God, or even play governor, and dare to name the safest and most dangerous towns in what may be the safest place on earth. How do you define your terms? A guy like Peyton Manning feels like Zeus in the passing pocket amid 300-pound gladiators. A jobless high school dropout might feel safe in a rural methamphetamine lab. For sheer volume of crime, Manchester holds the dubious lead over the rest of New Hampshire in almost every stat. Smaller communities have their crime neighborhoods too, identifiable by the surroundings. You can pick yourself a fight any night of the week in one of the bars in Farmington, the former town police chief once said. If global warming scares you, Portsmouth, Rye and Hampton could lose a lot of prime tax base in the next century, depending on what China and India do with their burgeoning economies. Not even the state highway engineers can list with confidence the worst roads, if driving is your phobia. By the numbers, your best chance to die at the wheel is in glorious Franconia Notch. But anyone who commutes southern Interstate-93 knows otherwise. It’s one continuous 75-mph tailgate party. That three-mile can of worms west of Manchester where Rte. 101 merges with I-93 is no fun at rush hour either. Afraid of your own shadow? The pitiful earthquake zone runs from about Manchester to Tilton to Ossipee. But the whole state is one huge slab of granite capable of amplifying a 7 or so on the Richter scale into a catastrophe. Not to worry, that’s about a thousand times as big as any recorded quake in New Hampshire. The worst air? Well, the whole state is pretty clean. The southern sector of the state is measurably worse, thanks to the prevailing wind patterns from far away. Londonderry is maybe the capital of groundwater pollution, with three cleaned-up Superfund sites, but the remediation process gave nearby neighborhoods town water. Most of Manchester Airport, with its ancient spill sites, is in Londonderry too. But town volunteers closely monitor the community’s wells and ponds to pick up any new threats to public health. As one state official said, your chance of dying an unnatural death is greatest in your own home or car. Inspect your wiring for fire hazards. Laptops can ignite if you leave them turned on for days. Buy those monoxide sensors. Check your brakes and tires. Drive sober. NH Acknowledgments/Disclaimer The data in this story came mostly from several bureaus of the Department of Environmental Services and from the Office of Energy and Planning, the US Census, the Hubbard Brook Research Center, the Department of Education, the U.S. Geological Survey, Doug Bogen of Clean Water Action, the Department of Safety and the “Kids Count” report of the NH Children’s Alliance. A number of in-the-know journalists and other individuals were consulted for facts and analysis. And, to quote the Bard, therein lies the rub. Analysis of such a complex network of causes and effects, multiplied by the unknown and divided by constant change makes the final “safety algorithm” more complex than our earthly calculators could handle. Besides, sometimes the data lies. In the end, the safest place to live is the place where you feel most at home, no matter what happens. And using this formula, once again New Hampshire comes out on top — at least for us.