Toxic plume over Cambridge investigated. Is burning books a safe option?
Sunday September twenty two 2069.
Authorities in Cambridge have declared an emergency in the City today as a plume of toxic smoke continues to drift south and east over the old city. This has persisted for days as a fire in the north of the city continues to rage. The origin of the plume is the incinerator power plant owned by the University. It has been operating for over 20 years and provides power from waste to the main Cambridge University central campus to the North West of the City.
The emergency advice to residents and businesses is to immediately seal all windows and power-down air conditioning units or reset them to recycled air flow and check filters. Despite the recent heat wave continuing with temperatures soaring to over 32o Celsius, everyone is advised to stay indoors and take shelter. The failure of the power plant also means that some facilities are without power.
A spokesperson for the University, Ashfa Cash, apologised at a hastily held press conference in Huntingdon to where key staff had been evacuated.
“We unconditionally apologise for the accident that led to our energy from waste plant, that provides power for the main university campus outside Cambridge, rapidly overheating and starting a massive fire. We are looking into the causes urgently as there is a large emission of smoke drifting slowly down wind of the accident”.
The underlying cause.
The cause of the fire has not been officially disclosed and there has been a degree of mystery surrounding the nature of the waste being converted to energy. Staff have in the past informed us anonymously of their concerns about the nature of the operation. Unofficially, we have learned that the bulk of the waste incinerated is discarded books. Twenty years ago the university made a decision to dispose of most of its paper library material. Only rare books or valuable first editions were saved. This followed similar action by other universities and libraries as they converted to digital access and archiving. Up to that point, many unwanted books were donated to libraries across the world. This had been particularly useful in supporting education in poorer economies. However, the advent of universal digital access and the introduction of the Low Energy Data (LED) 'balloon' technology led to a mountain of unused books accumulating. The proliferation of unwanted books produced in the early part of the century was in part to blame. Vast warehouses of remaindered books were increasing in size. The decision by Cambridge University to convert their own book stock to useful energy, and then offer to dispose of the stock of other libraries in the Former UK States (FUKS), was welcomed.
Importing books for disposal.
Maintenance of the power plant would have been difficult after the finite stocks of waste books were depleted in the FUKS. Workers at the super-container port of Felixstowe 5 indicate that waste books have been shipped in recently from many locations and transported by rail to the Cambridge North depot. This practice has been increasing in the last three years and containers are transported in secret overnight. We saw inventory ledgers that indicate many tons of China’s Chairman Mao Zedong’s so called ‘Little red Book’ from the mid -twentieth century had been imported from China for disposal over the previous weeks. The vast scale of the shipment surprised those involved.
Dr Sam Montag, of The Valleys University College in Pontypandy and an expert on waste incineration, indicated that books should not be considered as equally safe: “some books, particularly those printed and bound in former communist states in the last century or those produced in Europe before WW2 can have potentially very toxic contents if not handled with care”. Although disposal by incineration was considered in Germany in the 1930s there was little consideration of the toxic side effects. Dr Sam Montag carried out tests for our researchers and has shown that early editions of ‘Mein Kampf’ from the 1920s and the ‘Little Red Book’ from China in the 1960s have a particularly toxic content. He indicated that making assumptions about toxicity from analysing the book covers alone can be a mistake. Often it is the ink and how it is applied to the pages that presents the most hazard to humans.
Sources in the Chinese Embassy indicated that there had been recent shipments of the book made to the FUKS. A spokesperson said that ,“although it still holds that it is necessary to investigate both the facts and the history of a problem in order to study and understand it, there was no longer a need to distribute such advice to its citizens in book format”. However, huge stocks of the book were now rotting in storage and “it would be embarrassing for the government of the People's Democracy of China to be burning this particular book on Chinese soil”
Lack of capacity caused the accident.
Another source working at the plant indicated that the large Chinese shipment was too great for the storage capacity and a third much older incinerator, that had been mothballed in 2053, was pressed into service. It was an American design manufactured one hundred years earlier in 1953. This was many years before the ‘incident' of 2019 and was calibrated in degrees Fahrenheit. It seems that operatives on the ground had misread the paper manual and had set the controls to 451 degrees Celsius in error. This excessive temperature was well above what was needed and led to an explosion inside the main chamber and a great fire then spread quickly.
Response from the University.
When we put our findings this afternoon to the CEO of Cambridge University, historian Professor Dame Mary Stubble, she noted that “In history, many societies have cleansed themselves by burning documents and books. The incineration of the contents of Library of Congress during the third term of President Trump who swept to absolute power in the wake of the ‘incident’ in 2019 is a good example”. She stressed that Cambridge University has “put excess books to good use” by converting them to energy. There are vast numbers of remaindered books from earlier this century produced by former government ministers that studied at Oxford such as Geffrey Archer, Michael Gove and David Willets, “They would no doubt be pleased to see so many copies of their books converted to useful energy in Cambridge. Indeed, Geffrey Archer’s books alone powered our campus for 42 days this summer”. She did also add “but it is ironic that a simple error in reading an old paper copy of a manual had caused the accident. Lessons will be learned about the toxic content of some books and there would be more care taken with them in future."
Ray Faber-Granger, Special investigator and archivist.
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