(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 355: Asphalt – A History

October 14, 2021

This week we’re joined by Kenneth O’Reilly to talk about his book Asphalt: A History. We chat about what asphalt is, how it was used for building, war, and economic expansion and how it impacts the future of the planet.

You can listen to the audio for this episode at Streetsblog USA or Libsyn.

Below is a full unedited version of the transcript:

Jeff Wood (43s):
Kenneth O’Reilly, welcome to the talking headways podcast.

Kenneth O’Reilly (1m 19s):
Well, thanks for inviting me. This is great.

Jeff Wood (1m 21s):
Yeah. Thanks for coming on the show before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kenneth O’Reilly (1m 25s):
Yeah, I’m a historian. I’ve been my cheek and I’ve been around a long time. I still go out and run every day and bike every day, but I’ve been teaching since 1973. I had a couple of years off here and there retired for your university of Alaska, and now I’m teaching it a more walkie area, technical college, and I’m probably going to retire from there to in December. I figure an and also enough with 45 years of teaching, I grew up in New York city, or we used to play baseball and Asphalt stick ball and handball and all that and roller skate, roller hockey. So it’s Asphalt been part of my life from, from the get-go. Then we moved to Michigan and as I got older, I switched to basketball and again, play outdoors back then a lot of basketballs played outdoors.

Kenneth O’Reilly (2m 14s):
Now they have AAU teams for high schoolers and stuff, but back then it was all Asphalt, all graduate school in Milwaukee and Marquette university, Jesuit school. And then job offers came in and there are few and far between, it’s not easy to get a job in the humanities on a university level and a few offers, but I thought I’ll take the one that will be the biggest adventure. And so we moved to Alaska and it was a big adventure. We had our kids up there and my wife is a flight nurse up there. And so it was absolutely fascinating. And of course, we’ll ask her, they have their own Asphalt story as well. And a few Asphalt ventures in Alaska made it into my book as well.

Jeff Wood (2m 55s):
Yeah, it’s fascinating. And I want to talk to you about the book Asphalt, the history. I’m curious when you started seeing Asphalt, not just in the background, because it, obviously it permeates everything, but as kind of a topic for a book, I mean, something that you saw, it said, Hey, I see this topic and I want to write about it.

Kenneth O’Reilly (3m 12s):
Well, there’s two things really. And one, I have to make confession by taking Asphalt. I got to write about what I want to write about because it’s everywhere. And so I got to pick and choose, like, I get to write about the Vietnam war. I get to write about world war one, world war two. I get to write about Watergate. I mean, Asphalt, it hooks into pretty much absolutely everything. And the second thing is, you know, nowadays with the internet, the publishing opportunities are fewer and further between, especially what I do. I do political history. And by looking at Asphalt, that’s sort of a backdoor into political history because my books had an environmental history, but I take a political angle and write.

Kenneth O’Reilly (3m 53s):
And also in the discipline writing about everyday things is pretty common. I mean, there are books about solves. I’m working on a new book now about milk, all things, but again, I’m taking a political angle on what kind of milk wars, dairy wars, price, war gangsters, Teamsters, you name it. So again, Asphalt. And then once I started getting into Asphalt, I get all these little things that I didn’t really know like Cleopatra was in the Asphalt business, right? That they use Asphalt to a coat, the casing scenes on the Nagasaki atomic bomb until it just keeps popping up for good reasons and bad reasons.

Kenneth O’Reilly (4m 33s):
And basically the book I wrote is dualistic. Asphalt actually has some good traits. You know, I believe in the environmental movement, I believe global warming is real and all that. So that’s hard for me to say that, you know, fossil fuel has some good traits, but it does. On the other hand, it has some really bad sides to it as well. And then the main bad side is, you know, we’re basically paving the earth and that changes our structure in, in theory, Asphalt could fix that very easily in theory, and we already have permeable or porous asphalt, which would allow rainfall water runoff to go right back into the earth where water belongs.

Kenneth O’Reilly (5m 17s):
But the problem with that is poor as Asphalt clogs and basically brings down underworld and under water water going through it and crate for a while, but then it clogs and expenses to fix it are outrageous. And so we’re, we’re basically stuck with it. And without paving, of course, if you don’t have Asphalt is the most common paving material, concrete pavement is also common, but not nearly as common as Asphalt asphalt of the paved roads in the United States, Asphalt covers about 94% of them. And again, paving it on one level. It’s horrible for the environment on an outside level. If you don’t have paving, you have other environmental focusing around simple things like mud and dust, and those can create enormous environmental problems.

Kenneth O’Reilly (6m 4s):
So it’s sort of a dilemma and that we know how to fix in theory, permeable pavement put permeable pavement to the real work cause it just clogs to easily breaks down to.

Jeff Wood (6m 16s):
I noticed that, you know, if you wanted to get a, a us history and maybe some Caribbean History primary, you could, you know, go through the book and kind of get a basic history from the book. In addition to the history of Asphalt, you know, you mentioned that you’re interested in the history and you kind of woven that together, but I’m curious what surprised you the most about weaving together, this kind of intricate history all the way from the start of civilization to current times?

Kenneth O’Reilly (6m 41s):
Well, the thing that surprised me the most, other than little tidbit like Cleopatra was how valuable Nazi Germany thought Asphalt was now what I’m doing at the chapter in the new deal world war II. And so I was kind of shocked at the amount of Asphalt in 55 gallon drums that landed with our troops on D-Day because to move the troops we paved. And so we put in construction equipment, but I was even more shocked at the importance Nazi Germany gave to Asphalt for their war effort, but also for the Holocaust. And that was kind of surprising and some of the details and really gory and gross, and you don’t really, really want to talk about them hard enough writing about, but as a war material, Asphalt has a big, big history.

Kenneth O’Reilly (7m 33s):
And for Nazi Germany, probably the biggest thing was the Nazis tried to howl out Asphalt mind. Asphalt is a natural substance like to liberate the targets of that to Asphalt the tar sands oil sands in Canada, they call called bitumen or bitumen or bitchumen is pronounced different ways, but it’s really Asphalt. So you have natural Asphalt and in Germany, you’ve got some old Asphalt mines or a corporations like Deutsche asphalt would dig and, you know, crack the Asphalt out of the earth and go process and sell it. And Nazi Germany tried to hollow out some of those minds in order to move in Harmon production into those minds to be safe from allied bombers during the war.

Kenneth O’Reilly (8m 22s):
I didn’t discover that I discovered it from, for me, you know, that was in fact known already. I just didn’t know. And Porsche and Volkswagen and companies like that were all on that surprise.

Jeff Wood (8m 35s):
I think the interesting thing, well, maybe the weirdest piece was a part about the mummy and bombing. And then later on people selling crushed mummy skull as like either an aphrodisiac or some sort of weird snake oil,

Kenneth O’Reilly (8m 47s):
That’s pretty weird, but medieval period, right where they had leaches and bloodletting and all that, and superstition was rampant. But the dominant theory is what happened is Egypt didn’t have too many trees to begin with. And when they started running out of trees, they started out of running out of resin that they use for, you know, as part of the embalming process. So they turned a Asphalt, but at least for commoners and in Egypt, lots of people, you know, rich and poor, like or mummified, even mummified fetuses for God’s sake. So, and so during the late period in ancient Egypt, the asphalt was used fairly commonly in long suffocation.

Kenneth O’Reilly (9m 31s):
And it’s pretty, pretty weird. And you have tails explorers and others entering these pits where common people or mobile fighting bird and yet Asphalt dripping from the ceiling and things like that. It’s just, yeah, it’s creepy freebie to write about that. Everybody sees it as creepy, but I should’ve did

Jeff Wood (9m 53s):
Well. I guess I should ask a basic question. That’s like, after reading the book, I realize it’s complicated, but what is Asphalt? What is it exactly because there’s lots of terms for it. There’s bit of men and, and, and then you, you know, for the road paving, there’s Asphalt, blacktop, tarmac, et cetera.

Kenneth O’Reilly (10m 7s):
Sure. There’s like 200 different synonyms for Asphalt. I mean, it’s just incredible. The simplest way I can describe it is to differentiate at two different types. And they’re both natural by the way that the type we’re most familiar with nowadays is a by-product of oil refining. And so when a barrel of oil goes into a refinery, the refining process basically separates the oil into different units. Like the really light stuff. The boiling point might be just a hundred degrees. And the really heavy stuff like Asphalt, the boiling point is like a thousand degrees.

Kenneth O’Reilly (10m 47s):
And so a barrel of oil goes into a refinery and refinery just separates it into various products. And the way that does that, that’s really complex. And it takes a long time to do that. But once you get the valuable stuff, my gasoline out of the barrel of oil you’ll have leftover gunk. So a barrel of oil in the refinery processes into different products. And some of the products are worth a lot by castling. And some of the products are not worth very much and that you’ve heard of the copra. I’m afraid everybody has that’s, they’re fortunate.

Kenneth O’Reilly (11m 27s):
They made their fortune in asphalt and they call Asphalt bottoms. In other words, the gunk, after you’re done refining oil, this thick gunk that’s left over. And so that’s it Gump that’s left over. That’s what pays our roads. We mix that with aggregate crushed all, and then lay it out with machinery. We have blacktop highways, blacktop roads, blacktop, blacktop, playgrounds, blacktop, running tracks, and on and on and on. So that’s one Asphalt and natural. It’s a by-product of Loreal refining, but it’s still a natural product even in the refinery. Cause you don’t have to add anything.

Kenneth O’Reilly (12m 8s):
You just remove the wider hydrocarbons that produce gasoline and what’s left over is Asphalt now Asphalt also just in nature. Okay. And essentially what it is, is oil that has lost much of its mass because of weathering bacteria, feeding on it and so forth. And so if you just think of like a jar of Oregon of paint and you mix the paint up, it’s liquid, you can pour it, right. But if you let it sit out, they can sit out in the sun, it’ll start to harden. And eventually it will be thick is peanut butter.

Kenneth O’Reilly (12m 49s):
That’s essentially what happens with Asphalt. It thickens over time because it degrades because the bacteria have fed off the whiter hydrocarbons, weathering, all that kind of stuff. And in terms of the globe, you have natural Asphalt deposits all over planet earth with the big ones are in the Western atmosphere up in Alberta, Canada, the tar sands oil sands, that’s Asphalt. And then as well, of course their oil industry is a massive, it’s been a mess for quite a while, but they’re all well, much of it is essentially Asphalt as well, but it’s not really considered Asphalt because ven as well is close to the equator.

Kenneth O’Reilly (13m 33s):
And so it’s warm. And so in the reservoir, you can kind of pump it out with Asphalt up in Canada, further away from the reservoirs. Cold oil might be thick as AKI book. So you can pump it out in order to pump it out. You have to add chemicals. Are you heated? You melt it and then pop it out. But in Venezuela it’s basically Asphalt as well because once that oil it’s on the surface, it’ll solidify because on the surface, the temperature is lower than it is in the reservoir. And so you have these two Egypt, absolutely normous deposits of natural Asphalt, or very, very, very heavy oil in Canada and Venezuela, both Western hemisphere.

Kenneth O’Reilly (14m 19s):
And mate, you asked about the most surprising thing. Maybe the most surprising thing I found in the book is when we drive on roads, we might not like it. Right. And environmentalist because it prevents water from getting back into the ground. But at least asphalt pavement is not a carbon bomb. It’s a carbon sink because it’s never going to be burned. We don’t burn roads. Right? We burn gasoline. Well, we don’t burn roads. And so that asphalt pavement is hydrocarbon. And these 5% of it is, but it’s never going to be burned. And therefore it’s a carbon sink and that’s kind of good, but here’s what really got me up in Alberta.

Kenneth O’Reilly (15m 1s):
When we melt or hack that Asphalt, the moral companies, it is out of the ground. They add chemicals to it, or they upgraded to synthetic crude oil and they ship it down here to refineries. And so they turn it into gasoline. And so when you’re driving your car, the Asphalt under your car wheels, that’s a carbon sink, but the Asphalt that’s powering your engine is a carbon bomb,

Jeff Wood (15m 28s):
Right? So it’s just like kind of an enabler. That’s

Kenneth O’Reilly (15m 31s):
Correct. Yeah. But again, this is actually a little bit complex because up in Alberta, when you in downtown as well, they call it diluted crude oil. But up in Alberta, they call it either deal with it. Meaning diluted bitumen or Asphalt or Syncrude. Asphalt has been upgraded as synthetic crude oil, but regardless they pump it down here to modern refineries and the modern refiners prefer to get this gunk from Canada or if it was available from Venezuela, because it’s more profitable than getting white, sweet, crude oil. And that’s why a lot of our really white oil, we export it nowadays.

Kenneth O’Reilly (16m 15s):
Our refineries are real moderate and the profit margins are better for deal. And again, with the Koch brothers called garbage crews.

Jeff Wood (16m 24s):
Yeah. I guess, cause you can sell all the excess and then you just get rid of all the material you brought in. You had kick out in some form or fashion, whether it’s roads, whether it’s oil, whether it’s pulmonary products for polymers and things like that,

Kenneth O’Reilly (16m 36s):
Hydrocarbons, but there’s a pecking loyal. I mean, if you’re going to refine oil into gasoline, you’re going to have cried, leftover really thick crud, Asphalt. What, what are you going to do with it? Throw it away, use it to pave roads. And that might not be great, but it’s better than concrete walls. Concrete is, but far more of a pool than Asphalt. And plus Asphalt was easy to recycle concrete and very difficult.

Jeff Wood (17m 6s):
Well, that was an interesting thing about the book too, is that you were talking about recycling and the recycling Asphalt, all the Asphalt, you lay on streets and roads and blacktops, whatever can be recycled. And, and, and it is, it’s a relatively, it’s not thrown away often. It’s actually reused over and over and over again.

Kenneth O’Reilly (17m 23s):
Absolutely. Yeah. But one thing you had a real life with both asphalt and concrete or asphalt pavement, I should say in concrete pavement, it’s almost all stone crushed rock. And for what we call asphalt pavement or blacktop liquid asphalt is the binder. What holds the stones together and for concrete cement is the binder, Portland, cement. And a lot of people use the word cement and concrete interchangeable. That’s not accurate, but paving is, is not just ropes. It’s airport runways, it’s parking lots, it a million different things, man, literally a million, but many, many different things.

Kenneth O’Reilly (18m 3s):
When I did the book, I want to show that Asphalt more than just infrastructure infrastructure is a big part of the story, but it’s more than that. On the other hand, infrastructure roads is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. And so my book essentially has a division the world and then America before Asphalt, before pavement, and then after bay, because we don’t realize that payment is both very old and very new. I mean the Romans paid roads, but they basically the big stones. You had a few attempts to pay roads with binders like Asphalt in the ancient world with they’re very, very limited.

Kenneth O’Reilly (18m 43s):
You don’t really have pavement coming of age until around the late 19th century. And at that particular time Asphalt dominated, but Asphalt in nature. In other words, in Trinidad and Tobago, then as well, they would mind Asphalt and then ship in big chunks and then melted and use it to pay for roads. And then shortly thereafter, oil refining really blew up and Rockefeller and standard oil and they started selling asphalt paving companies. And so natural Asphalt was pushed aside and Asphalt produced in refinery, utterly dominated because they had a certain advantages in a refinery you can manipulate Asphalt far easier and you don’t have to remove rocks and sticks and twigs and giant pieces of ice and things like that.

Jeff Wood (19m 38s):
Yeah. It was interesting to hear the story of those Trinidadian kind of the, the lake and who is it, MZ barber, that the story about how they were trying to sell roads to the U S and all of the, the history behind that. I mean, that’s, that’s, what’s interesting to me is, is the onset of roads, but also how they kind of got into the American establishment as a part of even the political process. I mean, this is something that is tied to a lot of politics, a lot of corruption, frankly, and History. It’s really fascinating to hear the stories of how basically you took this natural Asphalt, but then eventually because of the refining process and oil usage, you get to the refinery Asphalt, which kind of changes the game for those folks who are trying to take stuff out of and, you know, Trinidad, for example.

Jeff Wood (20m 21s):
Yeah,

Kenneth O’Reilly (20m 21s):
Yeah, yeah. Natural Asphalt was basically a colonial price and that’s the AMC Barbara and those, he had one Asphalt company and there are others. And you mentioned corruption. And when at the time Asphalt was a colonial prize where British and American business people often with the backing of their governments, went into places like that as well. And Trinidad, in order to mine Asphalt, take it back to the us and use it to pay for often, they would go to the U S government and asked the U S government to send in, you know, Marines and warships to protect their business investments. And also on the municipal level, because most routes now we have the interstate highway system today, but even today, most roads are not federal they’re state and they’re local.

Kenneth O’Reilly (21m 9s):
And back then the roads were at school. So we stayed in local. And so when paving came in with the AMD barbers and, you know, mining Asphalt, TriNet in Venezuela, what these guys focused on was winning urban, municipal DAMing contracts. And that was corrupt as all get out. It was just absolutely ridiculous. And the way it worked is they would get the city councils and mayors to specify a certain type of Asphalt and only their company produced that particular type until they had like a defacto monopoly. And earlier you asked, you know, how do you define Asphalt? And there is no specific definition, but you have general parameters about the chemistry was that sir, that’s all the harder or general parameters.

Kenneth O’Reilly (21m 56s):
And so Asphalt might differ from one location in the natural world or one particular refinery to another refinery, just like crude oil differs from one wealth to the next, what are you getting? Corruption was a big, big part of this book.

Jeff Wood (22m 14s):
I noticed that just that fair amount, especially, you know, you’ll go into obviously presidential administrations and Spiro Agnew and the kickbacks, when I guess he was the governor of Maryland

Kenneth O’Reilly (22m 24s):
And that had to do with engineering companies and highway contracts for both asphalt and concrete rooms.

Jeff Wood (22m 32s):
I mean, even, it’s not quite it’s on it’s boundary, but I, you know, even reading about Elaine Chao being on the board of a paving company before she became the

Kenneth O’Reilly (22m 40s):
Second Volkan material

Jeff Wood (22m 44s):
And then still having a stake in it when she was the secretary of transportation, it makes me wonder, you know, why all that money from transit goes to roads. Yeah.

Kenneth O’Reilly (22m 52s):
Ciao, Mitch McConnell. I don’t know about you, but I’m shocked. And by the way, he ran Contra one of the sideshow guys in Iran-Contra was in the Asphalt business too. And so no matter where you walk, it pops up and you get this crazy stuff to the Reagan administration during the 1980s, you know, they didn’t like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and of course the anti-communism and all that. But one thing that got in Ronald Reagan’s bonnet as my grandmother used to say, was that the Russians held the 10 Denise’s pave asphalt roads in Managua, other places, nuclear rock naked, Ronald Reagan, all upset.

Kenneth O’Reilly (23m 36s):
And it’s little things like that that just keep popping up in the book and doing the research. You just never know where it’s going. And of course the Russians were no geniuses. When it comes to paving, they would pave all frozen ground and you don’t do that. It doesn’t work, you know, at the end of the season. And we did it too in wartime too, during the Korean war, we, the air force would pave over referrals and grounds and that’s real temporary. And runway might last, you know, 10 days then you have to renew it.

Jeff Wood (24m 5s):
You mentioned the CBS a number of times, the Navy engineers. Is that something that you were interested in beforehand?

Kenneth O’Reilly (24m 11s):
Well, he shorted me. I’m at my oldest boy. I just got promoted to captain in the us Navy. So it’s pretty cool. And my dad was PT bowl during world war two and he knew some CDs. Yeah. What struck invest the CDs is that massive amount of construction. They did, did all sorts of construction, but I focus on their use of roads and especially runway and the Pacific islands. And so we use a lot of Asphalt and on the Atlantic front, I mentioned, you know, the amount of Asphalt that landed with the troops at D-Day, but that’s actually teeny tiny to the amount of paving we did in the Pacific. We would, some of those island could basically pay a lot until you would have these enormous runways one runway, couldn’t be up to two miles long and you have one island.

Kenneth O’Reilly (25m 0s):
You might have like 10 runway and bombers taken off every six minutes. And the reason you have to pay them, if you don’t pay them, you got too much dust. You know, a bomber takes off, you got to wait 20 minutes for the next one to take off. But if you pave it, they can take off continually. You had no logistical issues other than, you know, the capacity of the planes and all that. And in some areas where we didn’t have like, had part of the book more work to in China where the USA is, is building runways in China and they didn’t have Asphalt. And so they would use water and keep the dust down, but it didn’t work for very well. And so the generals were all upset.

Kenneth O’Reilly (25m 41s):
He says, you know, and this other area of the war, we can take off heavy bombers every six minutes. And here we go, we can’t every 30 or 40 minutes cause we got to wait for the dust to come down. So it just pointed an absolutely enormous role. But then again, what does those Asphalt runways do? They allowed us to kill more people. World war II was a good car, as it were, had to be stopped, told you had to be stopped, but it’s still really, really violent. So in other words, without pavement, those bombs don’t get delivered. And that goes from the, an old gate on down to the, you know, most humblebee 70. And so Asphalt is responsible, you know, for water, definitely for quite a while.

Kenneth O’Reilly (26m 27s):
And that goes from war bombing to car crashes, motorcycles, pedestrian deaths, bicycle deaths, Lawrence of Arabia died on Asphalt. He survived Arabia, but he didn’t survive a motorcycle crash with two kids on bicycles and he is an blacktop died.

Jeff Wood (26m 47s):
And it connects also to, you know, what Eisenhower talked about in the military industrial complex and kind of the war machine, you know, transferring almost into, you know, multifaceted machine of building things in the U S and so that, you know, that discussion about building the interstate highways and his kind of shock that Congress decided to go through cities instead of around them. But there’s a whole other story related to that too. And in terms of kind of the machine that was started early on with the good roads movement, and then continued through the, after the second world war. Yeah.

Kenneth O’Reilly (27m 20s):
And a lot of the interstate that, that the rationale behind the interstate highways there’ll be able to move the troops around, but also to evacuate cities in cases, you know, will clear attack global thermonuclear war. Now the interstate highways and the Asphalt story is a little bit tricky because the interstate highways predominantly concrete, that’s changing a little. Now the percentage of the interstates that are Asphalt is rising and the percentage that are concrete is slowly shrinking, but they’re still predominantly concrete, but nonetheless, there’s a gazillion miles of interstate highways that are asphalt pavement and not concrete. And the decision to move the interstates through the cities.

Kenneth O’Reilly (28m 2s):
Yeah, that was kind of, I kind of knew that as an historian, but to get into the nitty gritty of the details there, and Eisenhower was simply out the lunch. He actually, his instincts were actually really on-point in that you run the interstates around the cities. And so you don’t destroy the cities, but he wasn’t paying attention. You know, if you had other things to do other know, bigger fish to fry. And so by the time you started paying attention, it was too late. And what happened is, is mayors big city mayors Use the interstates is gigantic public works projects, but also slum clearance. And the irony of course, is the interstates when they were put right through central city.

Kenneth O’Reilly (28m 45s):
Yeah. They cleared out slums, but they also cleared out, you know, working class and middle class white people who can now flee to the suburbs because you could move 20 miles from your factory. Now get there in 20 minutes because of the interstates. So it was just an absolute, complete disaster. And for most of the interstate construction, the phrase of the time was white man’s roads through black men’s homes, but it wasn’t just African-Americans they got displaced by interstate construction. So I have a little bit in the book about Los Angeles, Dodgers stadium.

Kenneth O’Reilly (29m 25s):
So a lot of urban renewal and estate construction and so forth, also displaced Hispanic people next can Americans and others. It’s like every time Asphalt turned up in my research, I was kind of surprised. I mean, to learn that, for example, Dodger stadium and the third may side parking lot, there’s a Hispanic grade school buried. It’s all there. It’s very down there. Now you mentioned the military industrial cop Asphalt. It’s a key part of that, but it’s inexpensive part fault, really cheap. It’s really cause it’s basically garbage after you’re done refining it’s garbage, but you can use it to paper.

Kenneth O’Reilly (30m 6s):
It doesn’t cost very much. And yet without Asphalt, do you really have a military industrial college? One of the things I found Chalmers Johnson, you were to meet this before he died. And there’s a public report called the Pentagon bait or department of defense base structure report. And it’s an inventory of the Pentagon real property. You know, the hundreds of bases around the world and so forth. One of the things they really emphasize in there are roads and parking lots and airstrips and runways because what good does it do you to have military base? If you can’t park, if you can’t have your aircraft take off and weigh-in.

Kenneth O’Reilly (30m 51s):
And so a big part of the Pentagon, maybe the most valuable part of the Pentagon has to do Asphalt. And so on one base structure report on recovery that an asphalt roar, and then it shows you, you know, we, we own, you know, 5,000 buildings around the world and all this stuff, but for the Pentagon to back in the fifties, by the way, segway your eighth at work, I just used it to slightly different topic. Back in the fifties, the air force mandated that all runways for Jetson bombers, the concrete, and there’s a big fight over that concrete lobby and the Asphalt eventually Asphalt the guts in there.

Kenneth O’Reilly (31m 36s):
Roll that back because the good thing about Asphalt roll the runway, homeless, you don’t have any downtime. You can just roll it out a few hours later and drive on or a jet can take off or a bomber can take off from it, whereas concrete, much more expensive to construct. And the downtime is much longer after you finish concrete. Well, you got to wait, it’s got to cheer. I see you are, it’s going to cure. And so are the military engineers, a lot of Asphalt cause they can do things immediately. Very, very quickly. Concrete has its own advantages. It lasts long.

Kenneth O’Reilly (32m 17s):
What is again, much more expensive and very difficult to recycle, especially as report the rebar in it reinforced concrete. That’s really rough to recycle.

Jeff Wood (32m 28s):
I wanted to also ask you about kind of the environmental connection because you know, we talked about this a little bit earlier in terms of the embedded carbon in the Asphalt itself and it’s not getting burned, but then there’s the issues of runoff and other environmental connections. I’m curious what the impact is of asphalt on say runoff. I mean, in the book you talk about how, if it’s spread over with Tara oil, it’s not a good thing because that gets in the water, but I’ve always wondered, you know, if you’re running water over Asphalt and it has these properties, it has, you know, some fossil fuel properties is that bad for, you know, water and runoff as well,

Kenneth O’Reilly (33m 1s):
Right? Yeah. You’ve got two issues there and it would run off. And one issue is flooding because the more Anchorage you pave the west natural flood plain you have until flooding is a gigantic issue. And David drives lot. The other issue you have is, is runoff. And it’s not the Asphalt itself that poses the problem with runoff. It’s what drips onto the Asphalt. So we could from car radiators and all sorts of things, chemicals, and yet that gets into water. And there’s almost nothing you can do about that. It can be remediated to a degree with that. That is an enormous problem.

Kenneth O’Reilly (33m 41s):
And so Creek lake streams, even the great lakes run off from parking lot highways gets into the groundwater or gets right into tributaries for major rivers. But those both have to be looked at in conjunction asphalt pavement, Asphalt, and other pavement causes flooding problems and then run off of the Asphalt. Themselves is not a particular pool that runoff is now you mentioned the word tar. All right. Now tar is very different Asphalt. A natural substance tar is not. It’s a man-made substance. And often what you see in playgrounds and driveways.

Kenneth O’Reilly (34m 26s):
They’re very dark black gunk coding. That’s coal tar. Now coal tar is more carcinogenic thousand percent and Asphalt, but it looks better when you get that nice, deep, black color that doesn’t fade to gray so fast. So when you have an asphalt surface, the runoff is mainly the stuff that drips on Asphalt. Like again, easiest example drippings from our car radiator, but for a coal tar surface, you’ve got a problem, both what drips onto the surface and the coal tar itself and people I call tar cause know I asked, but it is much more dangerous.

Kenneth O’Reilly (35m 8s):
And a few states have actually banned right now. And again, that for your podcast, that’s a good topic for a future guest because there’s a movement to get cold tar banned universally. And I don’t have a global law, but I will bet a nickel that eventually we’re not going to be coding driveways and playground and parking lots. We’ll call Tara. It’ll go. And by the way, when I was little and they paved with Asphalt, it really, really stunk. It smelled a mile away out of soda and smelled great, but nothing like it used to, because way, way back, they used to use coal tar to, you know, mix it and move the Asphalt.

Kenneth O’Reilly (35m 50s):
They don’t do that anymore in this country. And fading that out may still allow coal, coal tar coatings, right? So you’ve got Asphalt work speed up until you put a coating of coal tar on it and that kind of dangerous. Whereas if you have a would, would asphalt, then you only have to worry about poems that are interrupting.

Jeff Wood (36m 10s):
Well, that’s interesting to me, if you make something blacker, it also takes in more sun. You have, and you mentioned earlier the heat island effect and that’s something we talk about on the show. A number of times we’ve had guests on to talk about heat and that’s an impact as well. I mean, if you have so much pavement and it’s all black in cities, then you heat up the city to a certain amount. Yeah.

Kenneth O’Reilly (36m 28s):
That’s and that’s not good. And that, that goes with the lack of vegetation and trees. In other words, in cities where you have a lot of payment, you also don’t have many trees. So that’s like a multiplier for the heat island effect. We, you know, as a country and we’re making some progress there with, you know, green roofs and things like that. But a lot of that is tied to income and you see studies frankly, every year, a new study comes out that says in any areas where the average income is, well, there are very few trees, very, almost no green roofs in the areas of urban areas where income is high. You have vegetation, you have trees and you have quite a few greens.

Kenneth O’Reilly (37m 11s):
So that’s, you know, openness, you know, asphalt can be seen as a social economic marker on many levels. Environmental put also want, you know, like I have a section about basketball, suburban kids, they have asphalt driveway and city kids don’t have that, but they have playgrounds. And yet in some cities, the basketball hoops are left up in the playground for kids to play. And other cities, the basketball hoops are taken down because the police and mayors sometimes see Asphalt basketball courts at schools and playgrounds as magnets for crime, drugs, and violence and all that.

Kenneth O’Reilly (37m 57s):
And so they pull the rims down in urban America. Now in many cities, there’s a basketball court where there are no rooms, the back boards up, you can still see the lines right in the free throw line, but there ain’t no room because they take the rim rooms down. It was a crime fighting pool in other cities. Exactly, exactly the opposite. They keep the rims up and they want the kids to have an outlet for energy. The young people have high energy. And so research and Asphalt, I grew up playing basketball, Asphalt courts. And I was just shocked to see that. And then of course you have racists too, but basketball is not exclusively.

Kenneth O’Reilly (38m 40s):
Black game is global game, but in the minds of some, you know, white supremacists, it’s, it’s a black game. And so you have racist vandalism to both rooms down in, in cities. So kids can play. So this, you know, just Asphalt pops up everywhere and it’s never the major player, but without Asphalt, a lot of these things don’t happen. I mean, I have a line in the book you want to understand America, you don’t understand two things. Bombs are abroad cars at home. You don’t have bombers without Asphalt runways. You don’t have cars.

Kenneth O’Reilly (39m 20s):
Yeah. You could have all concrete runways, but you don’t. Most of them are Asphalt and you could have all concrete roads, but you don’t, 94% of them are half-full. So that’s America bombed abroad cars at home.

Jeff Wood (39m 33s):
The last question I want to ask you is about kind of the spiritual connection of Asphalt. And historically, I mean, we have instances discussing hell and damnation. You have Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s paradise lost. That was really interesting to me as well. Just kind of how Asphalt played into kind of our initial thoughts about hell.

Kenneth O’Reilly (39m 51s):
Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I like. And it’s just such a great writer. I mean, he just absolutely amazing. And in the middle east Mesopotamia and the biblical lands and all that, you have the dead seat way back then and the debts, they still does this, but the dead sea bubbles up Asphalt chunks, but now they tend to be teeny tiny. But back in the day, the dead sea would bubble up and Asphalt chunk like as big as a football field. And you would have people fighting over it. It would be a prize because you could chop off chunks and, you know, sell to the embalmers in Egypt.

Kenneth O’Reilly (40m 31s):
So you had an asphalt tree and that was absolutely amazing. And B in, and you also had Asphalt pitch, natural Asphalt it’s scattered across, you know, what is today, Iraq and rant and so forth. And, you know, you could get stuck in them much like prehistoric mammals that stuck in the word brand targets and Gertrude bell. She chronicled them. If, if your listeners don’t know who she was, she was one of the people who will construct the borders of Iraq, Winston Churchill, and Percy Cox and them, and Percy Cox took his riding stick and scratched out lines in the sand. And Gertrude Belkin came through with their campuses and protractors, and you know, then you get the borders of a rock, but she also Chronicle Asphalt pits in Iraq and the British, British empire.

Kenneth O’Reilly (41m 22s):
They were interested in any sort of hydrocarbon because as we know the British England, I know oil, right? None. So they are incredibly interested in that. And so you look at that holy land there, Gertrude bell Chronicle, more modern times and produce oil companies Chronicle, and then you go way back. Yeah. That it’s still there. And so it becomes a real image and certain conditions Asphalt methane can produce bubbles, right? Like it’s boiling and can look really scary. And so not real surprising. It became an image for, for hell and damnation.

Kenneth O’Reilly (42m 5s):
And if you’re good for the Bible scribes, a great thing to write about too, you can add some pizazz to your literary style, but no one is better than mill about that. I use one of his quotes about Asphalt in that, you know, the mouth of hell two different times in the book. And it was just in the beginning. And then in the chapter we’re doing with spirituality and good guys and bad guys, most cultures use Asphalt as a symbol of evil or not all cultures did. ’cause Asphalt, just terrible, useful in each of the orderly in use it for just so many things, you know, glue construction material.

Kenneth O’Reilly (42m 49s):
And this was true, you know, 3, 4, 5, 6,000 years ago. And it remains true today.

Jeff Wood (42m 55s):
And given its duality as a, sometimes a positive, sometimes a negative in the future, what’s a good outcome for you for Asphalt generally.

Kenneth O’Reilly (43m 2s):
Well, I got hydro carbons, a good future with that. They go away that we live in the ground, right? And now is out, Y Y Y will likely to happen probably not tall. Good future would be that you, we don’t produce any more liquid asphalt. We leave natural Asphalt in the ground. And then in both Canada and Venezuela, and that we don’t produce any more liquid asphalt or oil refineries because we have no more refineries because they’ve gone to renewable energy. Well, you’ll still need to pay. So if we can become more efficient about how much road space we need and all that, maybe recycle Asphalt, you just utterly have to pave maybe use that recycled material.

Kenneth O’Reilly (43m 52s):
And again, almost all Asphalt can be recycled, but I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball. It’s a tough question. And you know, even, you know, like environmentalist, they want a variety, you know, like me, like you want to ride our bikes, bicycles. Yeah. But if you have to commute five miles to work and you don’t want to ride on a dirt road, you want pavement, you want to bike path. And so it’s very hard to get away from Asphalt, no matter what your politics are, what your values are. It is very difficult. In fact, some of the first asphalt pavements for bicycles now, cars, in fact, that’s what, and bicycles used to be such a big thing. When they, they came out, you had the high wheelers with the giant front wheel and a back wheel.

Kenneth O’Reilly (44m 37s):
And then eventually the safety bicycle, which works quite bicycle, sort of like they work today. And it was just enormous. And there was tremendous pressure on government state governments and the federal government to pay for bicycles because wood would rush mud and Dustin very hard to ride a bicycle. But once you pay, then people could go with people just like today. They want to get out of the cities. And so by the late 19th century, you had a little bit of paving in the cities, especially in the east coast. And so for bicycle enthusiasts, that was great, but there’s like no paving out in the country roads.

Kenneth O’Reilly (45m 20s):
And so you’re going to ride a bicycle and you’re going to deal with a rut that’s hardest concrete and two feet deep, right? Are you going to deal with mud? That’s two feet deep. Now you can ride your bicycle. So the big pain, meanwhile, we actually began two bicycles in Nazi automobile. And of course that changed in the blink of an eye. Automobile became dominant bicycle. I mean, faded, not undoable, truly faded on the other hand is coming back now one more bike paths. And you see that with our roads, right? Paid roads. And you have those bike lanes, even a bike lane on Pennsylvania. And then when Obama was president, he had bikeshare stations, even on the white house grounds.

Kenneth O’Reilly (46m 5s):
And of course, Trump president Trump took out again, I’m shocked.

Jeff Wood (46m 11s):
Well, the book is called Asphalt, a History where can folks find it? If they want to get a copy

Kenneth O’Reilly (46m 16s):
University of Nebraska, press Amazon. And pretty much anywhere you can go to my website, to Kenneth O’Reilly dot com. And so you can buy it pretty much anywhere. And again, I Googled to see how it’s doing and literally you can buy it in a hundred different places. And so I’m happy about that. University press books sometimes do really well. And sometimes it’s hard to get them in the bookstore. So for this book, probably the really good bookstores will have it, but not all books are flat. And that’s been my history as a writer once in a while, I’ll be in a Costco or Walmart and I’ll see one of my books, but more often, you know, every third bookstore will have it, not every word, Italian, a little story.

Kenneth O’Reilly (46m 58s):
One on my books. I wrote a book once on the FBI and the civil rights movement. And in New York city, I went in for a book signing and they brought my book out on a little hand truck, you know, like maybe 70, 80 copies. And at the time I think it was Howard stern and Colin Powell had their books coming out and they had to take down the wall and they brought their volts in and forth. People are still reading that book. Are they reading their books anymore? Maybe not the number of sales sometimes.

Jeff Wood (47m 32s):
Absolutely. Absolutely. What kind of thanks for joining us, we really, really appreciate your time.


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