Toxic Communities

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In 2002, communities across the country were up in arms over a government plan to truck nuclear waste to Nevada. The proposed route passed through large cities, and authorities shrugged their shoulders when asked what to do in case of an accident. The nation’s mayors voted unanimously to ban the shipments until more was known about the risks.

This episode of NOW With Bill Moyers looked Anniston, Alabama, a community that lived with the risks of toxic waste for many years. And no one told them just how dangerous it was … Not the company that produced the poison, nor the state and federal governments that should have been looking out for their citizens. 


BILL MOYERS: The residents of Anniston, Alabama, know something about the risks of toxic waste; they’ve been living with a ticking toxic bomb for many years. The only thing is, no one told them just how dangerous it is. Not the company that produced the poison…not the state or federal government that should have been looking out for their citizens. Unlike the big firms on Wall Street, Main Street in Anniston had no friends in high places. Keith Brown reports.

KEITH BROWN: Come to Eastern Alabama — to Anniston, a manufacturing town of 64-thousand, — and you’ll hear a lot of stories about sick people.

HELEN BEARD: I lost my husband, 1991. He had throat cancer, which they said stemmed from thyroid.

SHEA SHEPARD: I had a hysterectomy when I was 23 and I still hurt and I have a lot of female problems.

MRS. SALLIE FRANKLIN: In my neighborhood, a lot of my neighbors died with cancer.

HELEN BEARD: And, when my husband passed away, the same year in ’91, I learned that my daughter, she was in her early ’40s, she also had cancer.

KEITH BROWN: This community feels abandoned and betrayed. It’s a place where no one has explained the skin rashes, cysts and tumors that seem as common as the crab apples and plums the people here used to eat from the trees.

DAVID BAKER, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: You go to these different homes and see what you come up with. Nothing but people talking about respiratory problems and cancer.

KEITH BROWN: David Baker grew up in West Anniston. His brother died of brain and lung cancer at 17-years-old. There’s no proof… but Baker, and many other West Anniston residents, point a finger at a long time neighbor for their health problems — Monsanto, the company that once manufactured Polychlorinated Biphenyls — commonly known as PCBs.

An industrial chemical, PCBs were mostly used for insulation in electrical equipment to prevent fires. They were manufactured beginning in the twenties but banned by the U.S government in 1979 after it was discovered they did not breakdown in the environment and were linked to cancer.

For almost forty years, Monsanto dumped PCBs into this landfill, now contained behind a chain-link fence. The company stopped producing the fire-resistant material back in 1977. But the people of Anniston are now living with Monsanto’s awful legacy: one of the worst cases of pollution this country has ever seen.

But has that pollution caused all the illness here? That’s what no one has ever been able to establish — much to the dismay of the citizens here, for whom the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

DAVID BAKER: This is all that protects this community, so whatever they done and whatever they were making there back then and whatever they buried on that landfill just not staying there anymore, have now reached out to the community and they need to pay the price for what they have done.

KEITH BROWN: There’s no question that PCBs have seeped outside the plant. From 1956 to 1971 alone Monsanto’s Anniston plant produced close to 500-million pounds of PCBs. Excess PCBs — 10 million pounds of them — were legally put into landfills on Monsanto’s property.

However, the toxic chemical migrated off-site seeping into the creeks and the streams. Flooding carried the PCBs into the soil, contaminating yards, parks, and private property. Though the full extent of the contamination has still not been determined, there’s evidence of PCBs as far as 40 miles away from the plant.

DR. HOWARD FRUMKIN: Anniston has the highest levels of PCB exposure of any town in America, of any town that I’ve ever heard of.

KEITH BROWN: The tragedy of this story is that no one has ever conducted the appropriate studies to determine the full extent of the contamination, and what effects it has had on the health of the people here. In fact, those who knew of the contamination never told the residents of Anniston of the potential danger that surrounded them.

And many residents – including David Baker believe Monsanto deliberately kept them in the dark.

DAVID BAKER: This is over 50 years, or 40, 60 years of them covering up what they have done. And now you can see the effects.

KEITH BROWN (ADDRESSING DAVID BAKER): You say cover up. What do you mean?

DAVID BAKER: Well, the cover up means that they knew that this stuff was in the water.

KEITH BROWN: In fact Monsanto’s own documents reveal the company knew PCBs were seeping into the community as early as 1970. Yet, it would be more than 2 decades before they told their neighbors.

SALLIE FRANKLIN: We were poor people on both side of the plant. It didn’t matter about what color, race you was, you were poor. And I felt like that was the reason, they didn’t tell us. They just didn’t care.

KEITH BROWN: It wasn’t until 1993, when a fisherman caught a severely deformed fish from Chocolocco Creek, about 5 miles down stream from the plant that the community woke up to the pollution in its midst. But it wasn’t until 2-years later in 1995 that Monsanto told the people who lived nearest to the West Anniston plant that the PCBs had leeched onto their property…people like SALLIE Franklin.

SALLIE FRANKLIN: They robbed me of my health. They robbed my kids of their health. They robbed me of my home. To you, it might not be much, but this is my home. I love my home.

KEITH BROWN: These days, Franklin’s house is practically surrounded by tall chain-link fencing with warning signs. She wears a surgical mask to mow the lawn.

SALLIE FRANKLIN: If I had known, at that particular time, I probably would have moved away for the health of my children.

CLAUDETTE GILBERT: I’d never eaten those crab apples or the muscodines, or the plums or the persimmons, or played in the little pond. But if you don’t know, you can’t correct it. You can’t do anything about it.

KEITH BROWN: Claudette Gilbert and her daughters moved to a neighboring town in the 1980s. But they’d already been exposed to PCBs for years. They came back to Anniston recently, and met up with their old neighbor, SALLIE Franklin.

They’re back to do what a lot of people here have been doing now that they are learning the truth about the extent of the contamination — getting their blood tested for PCBs.

ALYCE MACNEAL (GILBERT’S DAUGHTER): I have one little boy. He’ll be seven in August and I breast fed him and they said that if my tests come back positive they would want to test him.

KEITH BROWN (ADDRESSING MACNEAL): What does that do to a mother?

MACNEAL: I want to know for my little boy. So I’ll know. You know. If anything ever happened. You know, so I’ll know.

DAVID BAKER: What happened is basically that this is one of the particular areas that was first targeted.

KEITH BROWN: David Baker took us to an area just beyond the PCB plant. There, in 1995, Monsanto voluntarily bought out more than 100 homes and small businesses. Other properties were just abandoned. What’s left is a vast overgrown field with scattered remnants of a once thriving community.

Snow Creek runs all along here. Kids used to play here.


KEITH BROWN: In the creek.

DAVID BAKER: I used to play there.

KEITH BROWN: 200-thousand pounds of PCBs have already been dredged from this creek.

For years people ate fish from the contaminated waters, and planted their vegetables in soil loaded with PCBs. Nowadays, to avoid further exposure, some residents have resorted to planting greens in 5-gallon plastic buckets.

DAVID BAKER: You have your children now that don’t want to play outside on the grass. And parents are monitoring them to make sure that they don’t.

KEITH BROWN: In 1998 Baker formed a group called Community Against Pollution – CAP – to take on the polluters. By that time, Monsanto had spun its chemical division into a new company…called Solutia.

DAVID BAKER: All this city and all this county’s asking; “You made the mess clean it up. And clean up these people property. Take care of these people.”

KEITH BROWN: Solutia argues it has taken significant steps to do just that — spending millions of dollars on testing and clean-up… And removing PCBs from the most contaminated properties. For the last two years David Cain has been Solutia’s Anniston plant manager.

DAVID CAIN, SOLUTIA PLANT MANAGER: Well we have — we have sampled over 8,000 acres and 40 miles of waterways. We’ve sampled soil and sediment from here down to Lake Logan and Martin. We have spent over $46 million in cleaning up those areas that we’ve– we’d found already.

KEITH BROWN: Solutia is removing front yards loaded with PCBs. It’s replaced PCB laden soil in a neighboring town with new dirt and made a ball field. The company even built a new church to the replace an old one that sat on contaminated ground — at a cost of 2 million dollars.

DAVID CAIN: We’re gonna be here to see this issue through.

DONALD STEWART: I don’t think they mean a word of what they’ve said to you about that.

KEITH BROWN: Donald Stewart is a former United States Senator and an Anniston attorney. A group of 3500 West Anniston residents has hired Stewart to sue Monsanto and Solutia.

STEWART: They never released the reports to the public. Never said a word to anybody about those things. Just hid them in the bowels of this company.

KEITH BROWN: The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for damages to their community, their property and their health. To help prove the case, Stewart has ordered blood tests for thousands of his clients. The results are alarming to an independent scientist who has kept a close eye on PCBs in Anniston.

DR. HOWARD FRUMKIN, CHAIR ROLLINS SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, EMORY UNIVERSITY: In Anniston,the distribution has shifted towards higher levels. It’s as if you took a population with normal PCB levels and shifted the whole distribution of PCB levels up towards higher numbers.

KEITH BROWN: Dr. Howard Frumkin, Chair of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health explains most of us have some PCBs in our blood — the average level is 2 parts per billion. In a survey of 3,000 Anniston residents whose blood was tested for the lawsuit — more than a third had levels greater than 10 parts per billion, and 41 tested greater than 100 parts per billion. David Baker recently found out he has 3-hundred and 41 parts per billion in his blood.

KEITH BROWN (ADDRESSING DR. FRUMKIN): At what level does it become dangerous?

DR. FRUMKIN: There’s not a good answer for that. But with all of toxicology, as your level gets higher, the odds get worse. As your level gets higher, the chances that one of those health effects that PCB’s may cause will affect you increases.

KEITH BROWN: Studies have demonstrated that PCBs affect the immune, reproductive and nervous systems. They are suspected to cause cancer in humans and there is also strong evidence that PCBs can impair the development of children.

DR. FRUMKIN: They can interfere with the normal development of the fetus and the early child. Stunted growth, impaired body size, stunted development of normal behaviors and milestones, limited cognitive function.

KEITH BROWN: But there is no definitive medical or scientific proof linking PCB exposure to illnesses in Anniston. No comprehensive health study on the people of Anniston has ever been conducted.

DR. FRUMKIN: Imagine how you’d feel if you had an exposure to a toxic material. You’re sick in some way. And nobody can really tell you whether the exposure caused the sickness. What a frustrating place to be.

SHIRLEY BAKER: My older daughter was born in September 1970 with low birth weight and heart problems. She remained in special ed throughout school because of slow learning.

KEITH BROWN: Frustrated, David Baker and his wife Shirley, a nurse, decided to at least conduct a health survey in Anniston. We asked them to read a few of the responses for us. Here is one from a 47-year-old mother.

SHIRLEY BAKER (READING LETTER): I hate to think that where we live has something to do with my families misfortune just to think that by moving away could have saved my daughter saddens me a great deal.

KEITH BROWN: They’ve collected more than 25-thousand responses.

SHIRLEY BAKER: When you have ten year old girls who have uterine cancer, and we have children with all kinds of deformities and stuff and like the lady just said, it’s sad to think that they if they had been told about this early enough they could have moved.

KEITH BROWN: These are moving, even devastating anecdotes. But they remain just that: anecdotes.

DR. FRUMKIN: The fact is, the science is limited. We just don’t know enough to answer everybody’s questions yet. And one of the things we need to do quickly is learn more so that we can answer people’s questions and take the best care of them possible.

KEITH BROWN (ADDRESSING DONALD STEWART): What it would take to start to answer people’s questions are comprehensive health studies?

DONALD STEWART: And this would be a perfect place to do it, unfortunately for us I think Monsanto will do everything they can — and Solutia — to stop that. Because they don’t want that to happen.


STEWART: Well, to prove the link. That’s what they’re afraid of.

KEITH BROWN: Solutia claims it would welcome health studies in Anniston.

DAVID CAIN: I think if this debate can be answered one way or the other it will be the one chance for this community to move forward.

KEITH BROWN (ADDRESSING CAIN): If the studies show that there is a link between PCBs and the illnesses people have here, is Solutia willing to take responsibility for that.

DAVID CAIN: I think at that time Solutia will have to take a look and see what the data represents and I can’t speculate what Solutia will or will not do but I can tell you we do support a health study and if the data were to prove conclusively that I am sure Solutia would do the right responsible thing.

KEITH BROWN: Studies or no, this February the people of Anniston could finally claim a victory – in court. An Alabama jury found Monsanto and Solutia liable for the PCB contamination and for covering it up for decades. In the next phase of the lawsuit plaintiffs will testify to their health problems. The floodgates are now open to multimillion-dollar claims for property damage and personal injury. As part of the jury verdict, Solutia is also liable for the cleanup of the PCB contamination.

But on the issue of cleaning up Anniston, the company has struck a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

That may supersede anything a state court has to say. This agreement known as a consent decree… gives Solutia responsibility for the conducting the studies for the clean-up. And it also lets Solutia decide just how the clean-up will be carried out.

DONALD STEWART: They have no intentions of doing the kind of clean up that’s necessary. They have no intentions of taking care of the responsibility they have toward our clients.

DAVID CAIN: We’ve identified 25 properties in this community that require immediate clean-up. And to date — and we’ve known about these properties for some time — to date, we’ve only been able to get in and clean up at best probably 10 to 12, and we can’t get at the others because their attorneys will not allow us access to those properties.

DONALD STEWART: Well there’s a reason for that. It’s sort of like letting the fox in the hen house. Our folks are a little reluctant to let ’em come on their property and to do something since they haven’t been inclined to do that. And let me say something, they didn’t decide they wanted to do that with any degree of — I’d say significant effort until after the liability worry. Then, all of a sudden, they decided that they wanted to rush to EPA, hug them up, and come in here and really clean up.

I think the EPA is as close to this industry as any regulatory agency I’ve ever seen.

KEITH BROWN: EPA’s agreement with Solutia has spurred accusations of a conflict of interest. The chief EPA administrator of Region 4, Jimmy Palmer, represented a foundry in Anniston that may now be liable for the cleanup of some of the town’s other contaminates. And the Deputy Director of the EPA, Linda Fisher, was once a Monsanto executive.

STANLEY MEIBERG, DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR, EPA OFFICE IN ATLANTA: No, there is no conflict of interest. The deputy administrator has recused herself from any matters involving Monsanto, and she has had no contact on this case.

KEITH BROWN: Stanley Meiberg is Deputy Administrator of the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta. He points out the EPA will have the power to strictly supervise all of Solutia’s efforts.

STANLEY MEIBERG: We think the consent decree in fact is a vehicle that will enable us to really get this cleanup moving and make sure that the responsible party is paying for the costs.

KEITH BROWN: For many Anniston residents, the consent decree is too little, too late. Not only are they concerned about Solutia being the one to determine the extent of the cleanup, they’re also angry that the EPA and Solutia ignored their health concerns entirely in the decree.

DAVID BAKER: You see we need immediate help now, you see we’re in an ICC unit, we need someone to suture the wound now, we don’t need anybody to keep band-aiding this stuff until some more people die.

KEITH BROWN: When the EPA held a public meeting for comment before the agency finalized its deal with Solutia. That anger sprang to the surface.

ANNISTON WOMAN: The man done messed up every thing God put here. I have cancer at the base of my brain between my pituitary gland and right eye. I’ve had six tumors removed out of my breast when I was 30 yrs old. Somebody need to worry about us.

KEITH BROWN: Is there any way that the EPA can mandate that Solutia be responsible for the care of people who’ve been exposed to PCBs?

MEIBERG: I don’t know that any federal agency has the authority to require Solutia to provide healthcare to people in Anniston.

KEITH BROWN (ADDRESSING MEIBERG): Solutia’s responsible for the contamination. It’s been determined that PCBs are linked to neurological problems and disorders, possibly cancer as well. Shouldn’t they therefore be responsible for the healthcare of the people who’ve been affected by it?

MEIBERG: To do that you would have to make a very clear determination that a particular health consequence was a result of exposure to PCBs. And while we believe there is ample reason for concern about exposures to PCBs, to take an individual case and draw that exact cause and linkage is — a challenging medical…

KEITH BROWN: Because there’s been no health study. So it’s kind of a Catch 22?

MEIBERG: That’s right. Well, in the sense that again we do not have the authority to require that specific medical provisions be provided for people in the communities and Anniston itself.

DR. FRUMKIN: In our health care and public health system, nobody really has primary responsibility. And towns like Anniston can easily fall between the cracks.

KEITH BROWN: Why are you still here, why haven’t you left?

HELEN BEARD: If I have PCB in me, the damage is already done. Everybody can’t leave their home simply because of this big company.

SALLIE FRANKLIN: It been like hell. It been like hell, I’ll tell you the truth. You think you’re almost there, you come to find out you’re just as far as you was don’t it seem like when you first started. So, it been hell.

KEITH BROWN: The battle in Anniston is far from over. Another lawsuit is gearing up. This time famed attorney Johnny Cochran will take on Monsanto and Solutia on behalf of another 15-thousand current and former Anniston residents… Claudette Gilbert and her daughters are a part of that lawsuit.

SHEA SHEPARD: I want ’em to clean up. You know.

CLAUDETTE GILBERT: And take care of the people that are sick.

SHEA SHEPHARD: Yeah. The people that are sick.

You know, a lot of these people are really old that are around here. They, you know, can’t afford to keep going to the doctors after doctors. Just take care of the people that’s sick.

KEITH BROWN: Are the folks here tired?


KEITH BROWN: This has been a long–


KEITH BROWN: It’s been a long battle.

DAVID BAKER: Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. Especially those that is sitting back right now and knowing that they are sick and ill and they keep saying, “Well, if I’m ever gonna’ get any type of restitution for what happened to me, I wish they’d go on and give it to me before I pass.” And many of them have passed.

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