Monsanto's PCB scandal
seek compensation in Alabama town
that was secretly poisoned for decades
Toronto Star / William Walker 17feb02
PHOTO BY WILLIAM WALKER/TORONTO STAR
ON THE GROUND:
"I hope someone does something about that Monsanto,"
says Jura Hanvey, seen with son Johnny outside their Anniston, Ala., bungalow.
"I lost a breast to cancer, I've had open-heart surgery and now I have acute asthma."
HER ARMS ARE folded tightly, hands clenched beneath her armpits, as she peers warily through the screen door at the stranger talking to her son.
Johnny Hanvey has just wrenched his head out from under the gas pedal of the pickup truck he's trying to fix on the front lawn of the family's sagging clapboard bungalow.
Across the street, white plumes of smoke billow from the old Monsanto factory, now part of the giant biotechnology conglomerate's Solutia Inc. pharmaceutical division, behind a barbed-wire fence ominously marked, "Danger."
Finally, Jura Hanvey, frail at 79, toddles out gingerly, wrapped in a red bathrobe, her hair finally grown back after chemotherapy.
"Are you here about Monsanto?" she asks, her eyes suddenly alight. "I hope someone does something about that Monsanto.
"I lost a breast to cancer, I've had open-heart surgery and now I have acute asthma. They don't do anything to help me. Now, I've got to go see three different doctors."
Johnny Hanvey knows how lucky his mother is to be alive, given the almost unbelievable circumstances of Monsanto's decades-long role in secretly turning this would-be-picturesque rural Alabama town into one of the worst environmental disasters in America.
Anniston (pop. 45,000) sits among rolling hills in eastern Alabama, almost halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta. It seems quaintly frozen in time. "Cowboys" is the popular gas station, "Good Hearted Bob's" is the car dealership and eateries boast of "genuine BBQ."
From 1935 to 1972, Monsanto manufactured polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at its Anniston plant.
Documents show that Monsanto knew as early as the 1950s that PCBs were a toxic danger, but that the company skilfully hid that evidence from residents, all the while dumping PCB waste ? sometimes more than 110 kilograms of it a day ? into two huge unlined landfill sites near the Hanveys' neighbourhood.
The company stopped making PCBs, once widely used as industrial coolants and electrical insulators, only because it knew Washington was going to ban their manufacture because of safety concerns, as the government finally did in 1979.
For years now, Monsanto's landfills have leached PCBs, lead and mercury into Anniston's streams and soil. One of the landfills is on a hillside, gravity helping the factory's contaminants to drain toward the area's modest homes whenever it rains.
Anniston's rising cancer rate, although never studied scientifically, is often measured by the growing number of tombstones and abandoned houses.
The story could be a sequel to the Academy Award-winning movie Erin Brockovich, except it's missing the people's-advocate title character.
Instead, small groups of town residents are getting together to seek compensation on a piecemeal basis through the courts, while little is being done to effect a comprehensive cleanup of Anniston's toxic swamp.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined the fray just three years ago, at the urging of local residents. It took more than 2,500 water and soil samples from 800 locations in west Anniston and lab results showed there were "elevated levels of PCBs, lead and other hazardous substances."
In many cases, the PCB levels were hundreds of times higher than the federal limit.
The EPA concluded that its tests, along with those conducted by Alabama agencies, "have determined that the PCB contamination is attributable to the operations of the former Monsanto plant."
Scientists confirm that PCBs can cause cancer, neurological disorders, reproductive problems, immune-system depression, developmental problems in children, liver damage and skin irritation.
Critics of the genetically modified food industry see the Anniston story as a cautionary tale, since Monsanto is one of the multinational corporations now asking the world to accept its word that GM food crops are safe.
In Anniston, records show, Monsanto had some crucial information about food safety but hid it.
"I've done my talking," says Ruth Mims, opening the door of her frame house on McDanial St., one of the most contaminated streets in one of America's most contaminated towns. "Y'all are welcome to come in, but it's time for someone else to talk."
After Mims testified at a jury trial last spring on behalf of a group of 1,600 plaintiffs, Monsanto's lawyers had heard enough. Rather than leave compensation in the hands of the jury, they sought a recess and immediately settled out of court.
Back in 1970, the jury was told, Monsanto suddenly wanted to purchase Mims' hogs, which sometimes strayed from her backyard on to company property.
What Mims didn't know then was that her hogs had tested 90,000 times the legal limit for PCBs. No one ever told her.
"I used to eat them hogs!" Mims told the court.
Many of her neighbours in this dirt-poor community also fished for dinner from the area's two creeks, which were horribly contaminated with PCBs, lead and mercury.
Monsanto had known this since 1966, when a scientist hired by the company dropped 25 perfectly healthy fish into Snow Creek and observed their behaviour.
Within 10 seconds, none of the fish could swim and in less than four minutes they were all dead, many having shed their skins.
In Anniston's larger Choccolocco Creek, one fish, a blacktail shiner, was found to have 37,800 parts per million of PCBs, when the legal limit was 5 parts per million.
Even worse, while Monsanto hid what it knew for decades, Anniston residents believed the rich, red-clay soil of their hometown contained nutrients. They would form the clay into patties, bake them and eat them.
"I think most everyone in that neighbourhood ate clay dirt. Once you'd start eating it, you came to crave it," Mims testified in that first jury trial.
And almost everyone in west Anniston spent the long, hot summer months growing tomatoes, vegetables and greens in their backyards, hundreds of which are now known to have highly dangerous levels of PCBs and lead.
Last spring, Mims and her fellow plaintiffs settled for about $40 million (U.S.) ? a pittance, considering the billions it would cost the company to clean up its damage to Anniston.
After lawyers' fees, the settlement meant about $18,000 for Mims, less than the amount her now-unsaleable house has devalued. And no amount of money could help ease the memory of two sisters dead from cancer, a third sister who lost both breasts to cancer and six of her 13 siblings who died during their childhoods.
In the modern courthouse 30 minutes up the highway in Gadsen, another 3,500 plaintiffs are now in court with Monsanto in a new attempt for compensation.
Monsanto may have settled with Mims' group, but with this new case in court and another 15,000 plaintiffs having filed suit in a case to be heard next year, the company is fighting against having to pay millions more in damages.
In Gadsen, the eight women and seven men of the jury listen to harrowing testimony from plaintiffs.
When her doctor informed her that her blood was rife with PCBs, 81-year-old Annie Bea Brown told the court, it "made me think what in the world happened to me with all this stuff going around in my body."
Testified 70-year-old Hassie Taylor: "We do not know what it will do to us. I worry about my life savings. Sometimes, I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and just lay there."
A woman slumped on a mahogany bench in the court's visitors' gallery, a plaintiff who can't be identified here because she was speaking outside the courtroom, said she'd just been to hospital for a biopsy because her doctor suspects she has cancer.
Monsanto lawyer Jere White told the jury that, regarding these 3,500 plaintiffs, the company sees "no reason for them to worry about getting sick."
Donald Stewart, lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the jury it's clear Monsanto knew for decades about the problem it was causing ? Harvard scientists linked PCBs to health hazards in the late 1930s ? but did virtually nothing. Instead, he said, the company put "profits before safety."
White countered that Monsanto had taken "responsible action" and that there'd been "no harm done."
To take the Erin Brockovich analogy one step further, White accused the plaintiffs' lawyer of giving a "movie version" of what took place in Anniston over the years.
But Stewart had just begun.
He told of a hog found dead by Monsanto decades ago atop the hillside landfill dump and of company tests that showed the animal was off-the-charts high for PCB levels.
The hog's owner, now one of the plaintiffs in the Gadsen case, has sworn a statement that someone from Monsanto came to his house and offered him a bottle of whisky and $25 a head for his remaining hogs, which the company allegedly killed and buried without telling anyone about the test results.
In fact, a closer look at Monsanto's own documents tells the story of a company that tried at every turn to minimize the release of public information on pollution dangers it knew about at its Anniston plant.
They also show that Monsanto took shortcuts on abatement measures and that company officials vowed not to lose "one dollar" of profits.
Last month, Monsanto's St. Louis-based president, Hendrik Verfaillie, told Associated Press that the company he leads has nothing to do with the past.
"We want to be seen as a new company with new management and new behaviour and we want to be disassociated as much as possible with whatever happened in the past and the chemicals," he said. "That's not where we are focused. That's not what we are trying to accomplish."
Verfaillie said his company is more open these days and has established a "Monsanto Pledge" committing it to dialogue and transparency.
"Before, we would do all these studies and we would keep them in a vault and we would not communicate anything about it," he said.
Indeed. The Washington-based Environmental Working Group has released 4,000 pages of internal Monsanto documents, many of them marked, "HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL." The pages were obtained through trial exhibits, court pleadings and legal discovery documents. They tell a stunning story.
One 1975 memo from a company employee to his superior stated: "We have no information relating to the effects of PCBs on the people in the areas surrounding our producing facility. We have no programs underway at present to study these effects."
There's no doubt that Monsanto knew all about PCBs and their risks. A 1971 memo between company executives stated: "I can say that we have probably the world's best reference file on the PCB situation. This includes reprints from the literature beginning in 1936 to reports issued last week."
As early as 1951, Monsanto officials knew Aroclors, the brand name for the company's PCBs, were not safe.
"As I am sure you know, Aroclors cannot be considered non-toxic," one company official wrote in a memo.
By 1955, Monsanto had decided to try to protect its workers, but not its Anniston neighbours.
"It is the opinion of the medical department," a 1955 memo stated, "that the eating of lunches should not be allowed in this department. Early literature work claimed that chlorinated biphenyls were quite toxic. ... In any case where a workman claimed physical harm from any contaminated food, it would be extremely difficult on the basis of past literature reports to counter such claims."
A 1958 memo showed the company's position on mandatory labelling: The company would "comply with the minimum and not give any unnecessary information which could very well damage our sales position."
Six years later, responding to new labelling requirements, a memo urged a "very minimum precautionary statement."
By 1970, Monsanto was bunkered down, trying to fight off growing fears about PCBs and protect its profits of $22 million (U.S.) in worldwide sales.
"We can't afford to lose one dollar of business," a 1970 company memo stated. "Our attitude in discussing this subject with our customers will be the deciding factor in our success or failure in retaining all our present business."
A memo sent in 1976, four years after Monsanto ceased producing PCBs and was worried about legal liability, shows the company had turned to a strategy of denial. "Avoid any comments that suggest liability; avoid any medical questions if possible; do not offer information," the memo states. "If a question comes up, say our development work was shelved."
Unlike the $500 million PCB-dredging operation that the EPA ordered General Electric to provide for New York's Hudson River ? or even the true story of California's Pacific Gas and Electric, on which the Brockovich movie was based ? Monsanto likely has evaded a large-scale cleanup order. And that's due, at least in part, to Alabama's lax attitude on environmental matters.
In the last decade, while state environmental agencies' budgets across the U.S. increased by an average of 140 per cent, Alabama's environmental budget was cut back.
Meanwhile, city officials in Anniston have long favoured a pro-business attitude in order to create much-needed jobs. Even today, they continue to play down the area's toxic problems.
"To me, the real story here is that Alabama has such weak environmental laws and they've always sacrificed them for job creation," says west Anniston resident Keith Howland, a Chicago native who came here 14 years ago with his Alabama bride.
"The local chamber of commerce and local government have done a very good job of minimizing this because it's bad for business. ... It's the `good old boys' syndrome that has become so obvious to me living here since 1988.
"These guys just keep covering each other's butts all the time. It's dirty government and bad business. We're 70 years behind the times in terms of government and environmental policy."
Cheryl Smith just looks sad about it all as she stands outside her mother's house, two doors down from Mims' on McDanial St. and next to one of many abandoned, ransacked houses that have become garbage dumps of tin cans and animal feces.
Smith agrees that the money her mother, and Mims, accepted in last spring's settlement seemed like a lot at the time.
But now, she says, "I'm not satisfied at all. Personally, I think Monsanto pulled a fast one on us. There was a lot of double-talk done.
"Myself, I'm not familiar with how the legal system works, but I think we could have gotten compensated more than we did. Especially as seeing that we know more information now as far as contamination goes."
Smith's family has a history of asthma, cancer, arthritis, kidney and liver disease.
"I think personally there was a lot of stuff that we weren't aware of," she says. "I feel we were shortchanged."
At the Kelley-Steadman American Legion hall, Post 312, in west Anniston, one of the few enterprises still operating in the neighbourhood, Harold and two of his buddies are sitting at the bar, sipping on half-pint bottles of Jack Daniels bourbon and cans of malt liquor.
Harold, whose parents both died of cancer, has lived in west Anniston his entire life, except for his stint in the U.S. Marines, when he spent eight months fighting in Vietnam.
He doesn't want his last name used because he's working with a lawyer on a future group lawsuit against Monsanto.
"Sometimes," Harold says, staring blankly into his drink, "I think nothing has happened to solve all of this, because what you have here is a poor black neighbourhood.
"You could call it politics. If this keeps dragging on, most of the people in this neighbourhood will be dead before anything happens to clean this mess up."
Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution: PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told - Washington Post 1jan01
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