"Bad Chemistry" -- An APR news special
It’s been two decades since the chemical company Monsanto settled a lawsuit with Anniston residents. People there said Monsanto exposed them to chemicals called PCBs which caused birth defects and cancer. But Monsanto is far from the only alleged instance of industrial chemicals harming Alabama neighborhoods. The APR News team presents this documentary we call, "Bad Chemistry."
“My brother Terry, he had an enlarged heart. His heart got as large as a half gallon bucket...a brain tumor, and cancer of the lungs," said Anniston activist David Baker.
He recalled how, in addition to cancer, Monsanto chemicals called PCBs also caused birth defects among his neighbors.
And, PCBs weren't the only chemical products manufactured by Monsanto. APR news visited the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center to talk about how the company also made a certain herbicide during the Vietnam War.
“And, so when I got diabetes, I didn't know that was Agent Orange,” said U.S. Army veteran Woody Washington.
“And that's how it was in Vietnam,” he recalled. “It was a lot of jungle stuff. And it would be wet. We didn't know that it was full of herbicide, we had no idea.
And, the Pentagon says 117,000 veterans in Alabama may have been exposed. There are other examples of industrial chemicals that Alabamians say are ruining their health right now.
“I have asthma…kidney failure…and other stuff,” said Angela Smith of Birmingham. She lives in the shadow of the Bluestone Coke Plant. She and her neighbors say smoke from the factory is making them sick. bluestone has been closed for two years and critics say it's still violating federal pollution laws.
Coal ash is another concern in Alabama. It's the pollution leftover from power plants as they generate electricity. The ash contains mercury, lead and arsenic.
“The trees in that area looks like snow tipped trees with gray dust,” said Ben Eaton of Uniontown.
APR News spoke with residents of this community in Alabama’s Black Belt region eight years ago about this. They say coal ash is being shipped to their community to this day, and it's still causing health issues.
“Kidney problems nerve problems breathing problem,” he said.
For the next half hour APR news we'll look at these issues during our program we call Bad Chemistry. In Anniston, the harm allegedly caused by PCBs didn't impact just one generation but many. We start off with the story of one family in particular.
My name is Taylor Phillips. I’m twenty four years old, and this year, I’ll start medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up on the west side of Anniston, Alabama. That’s where the heaviest contamination of PCBs from Monsanto was supposed to be. When I was young, my mother would joke about it. She used to say we were all radioactive and we’d glow green at night. But, the impact of one Monsanto product was more serious than that. It was a group of chemicals called Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs for short.
To get a complete picture of Monsanto, Anniston, and PCBs, you have to go back to the early 1930’s and the story of Rayfield Horton. He was my great grandfather…
The nation was still reeling from the Great Depression when Rayfield got a job as a janitor at the Swann Chemical Company in Anniston. Monsanto later bought the plant where my great-grandfather worked. That was 1935…
This is one of the fireside chats by President Franklin Roosevelt. His radio address took place the same year Monsanto bought Swann Chemical. FDR’s plan to save the nation’s economy was called the New Deal. One idea was to bring electricity to rural parts of the country. PCBs were used in electrical insulation, so that was good news for Monsanto
My great-grandfather was just one of the African Americans living in Anniston. They were mainly descended from slaves and sharecroppers. Most of them got jobs making the town’s big exports. This was also the Jim Crow South. That meant Anniston was segregated. Blacks lived on the rural westside.
The PCBs made by Monsanto were used in things like flameproofing materials, paint, varnish, and even chewing gum. The problem was that two years after Monsanto bought Swann, PCBs were being linked to medical problems. The Harvard School of Public Health held a conference on sicknesses like liver damage, skin irritation, and infections caused by chemicals similar to PCBs.
In 1944, the D-Day invasion took place during World War two. That same year PCBs were officially declared toxic. But nobody told my great grandfather. Monsanto salesmen were warned to stay clear of the chemicals. That information didn’t filter down to any of the black men working maintenance jobs at the plant. The company didn’t even provide protective gear. All of those details would be in the lawsuit against Monsanto that was coming.
That would go on until my great grandfather retired in 1969. That’s the year Astronauts landed on the Moon. It’s also when my family started getting sick. By the mid-nineteen seventies, all three of my surviving great grandparents had suffered strokes. They were only in their late forties and early fifties.
In 1977, Monsanto was pressured to quit making PCBs. Two years later, the EPA ordered a nation-wide ban.
During the 1990s, my mother’s generation began to experience severe health problems. Women went into preterm labor or suffered preeclampsia. Their newborn children had congenital defects. My own brother was born at only twenty-five weeks. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a year old.
Around this time, my family started investigating the impact of PCBs. They all had blood tests taken. Both of my parents, my aunt, and my older brother had higher levels of PCBs than the federal government considered safe.
As the world looks back on twenty years since the Monsanto settlement, it’s what money doesn’t buy that hurts.
Two years after the settlement, my extended family gathered together for we knew was my grandmother’s last birthday. We all called her Nanny. Her cancer had metastasized to her brain. I was too young to know what that meant. But, I remember Nanny growing more frail every time I saw her.
On the weekends, she used to sit me in her lap with a copy of the book Pippi Longstocking. Nanny used to read to me and challenge me to spell and pronounce the big words. Her illness worsened to the point that you could barely understand what she was saying. We never finished that book and no settlement will change that.
Alabama Public Radio contacted the Bayer company which bought out Monsanto in 2018. APR offered Bayer the chance to heard on issues related to PCBs in Anniston. Those emails went unanswered.
We’re at the VA Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. The facility has patriotic posters on the walls, and uniforms from all the branches of the U.S. military in glass display cases. And today, there are a lot of balloons, too…
The Veterans Administration is holding what it calls a carnival. There are games and free hot dogs, but there’s also paperwork. Vets are getting the chance to sign up for what’s called the federal Pact Act. It offers extra health benefits for servicemen and women exposed to toxic chemicals.
“I was in the ninth infantry division,” said seventy-five-year-old Woodie Washington of Tuscaloosa is already signed up.
“And we was called Charlie Company,” said Washington. “You know, you got to alphabets and you know, Alpha, Delta, Charlie…”
Washington fought in Vietnam for two years starting in 1968. He was a rifleman and that meant lots of time in the jungle, hacking his way through vines and foliage…
“And we would go through those with machetes cut down stuff to get through the jungle,” Washington recalled. “And it would be wet. We didn't know that it was full of herbicide. We had no idea.”
And that herbicide is the point of this story…
“I didn't know that was Agent Orange,” said Washington. “Never did. I didn't think of it that way.”
Monsanto was a major producer of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Dow Chemical was another. The National Institutes of Health says eleven million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over Vietnam. The point was to kill vegetation where enemy soldiers could hide.
“Some of the earliest studies were for various forms of cancer,” said Doctor Ted Schettler is with the Science and Environmental Health Network. The Oregon based group studies the misuse of science and the harm it causes. Schettler is ticking off the list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange….
“…leukemia, some kinds of lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma,” he said.
Schettler is also a medical doctor. He says the suspected impact of Agent Orange doesn’t end with cancer.
“Then, it became apparent that some children who were born to veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, were born with birth defects,” Schettler said.
Twenty thousand residents of Anniston, Alabama had illnesses blamed on Monsanto’s PBC chemicals. The Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. estimates the number of Vietnam Vets exposed to Agent Orange is one hundred and seventeen thousand, and that’s just in Alabama.
Veterans at today’s VA Medical Center carnival in Tuscaloosa are making their way from the hot dog stand to information tables on the federal PACT Act. Former members of the military who sign up will have to go through a screening process to see if they were injured by toxins during their service.
“I do have neuropathy, upper and lower extremities. I do have the sciatic pain in the lower left hip,” said Army vet Woodie Washington. We met him earlier in our story. He’s waiting for word on whether the VA will provide additional help for his list of ailments. Washington says all he and his fellow Alabama Vets can do is wait…
“I hope is that some of us get upgraded, you know, to be compensated for the risk that was taken by veterans of all wars,” he said.
APR gave Monsanto and Dow Chemical the chance to respond to questions on Agent Orange exposure among Alabama military veterans. Monsanto didn’t respond, but Dow did. In a written statement, the chemical company disputes the link between Agent Orange and Cancer. Dow said in a separate release, that it and Monsanto were required to make Agent Orange, and to supply it to the military, under the U.S. Defense Production Act.
This is Dow Chemical’s email response to APR’s request for comment on Agent Orange exposure among Military veterans in Alabama.
“The Dow Chemical Company (“Dow”) greatly respects the men and women who served in Vietnam and all who were affected by it. During the Vietnam War, Dow and other companies were compelled by the U.S. government to produce military herbicides, such as Agent Orange. The government provided Dow and the other companies with specifications for Agent Orange and controlled its transportation, storage, and use. Agent Orange was produced strictly for military use and Dow never produced nor sold it as a commercial product. The U.S. courts have consistently ruled that the manufacturers bear no responsibility for their role in supplying the U.S. government with Agent Orange for its use during the Vietnam War and have dismissed all claims to the contrary. Moreover, the extensive epidemiological study of veterans who were most exposed to Agent Orange does not show that such exposure causes cancer or other serious illnesses.”
I'm Cori Yonge, APR news. Eighteen wheelers rumbling through Uniontown’s main intersection are a common site. They drive past crumbling antebellum homes and deserted store fronts. Some are passing through this poor and mostly Black community. Others have a local destination in mind. It’s privately owned Arrowhead Landfill four miles away. The landfill has a permit to take industrial waste - including coal ash - from 33 states. Coal ash is what’s left after coal is burned.
Fourteen years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency picked the Arrowhead Landfill as the dumping ground for four million tons of toxic coal ash from that Tennessee spill. Rail cars filled with ash arrived daily. Residents say it created a stench and covered the area in a fine powder.
“The trees in that area looks like snow tipped trees with gray dust,” said Ben Eaton in a 2015 interview with APR. Eaton is president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. We caught up with him to see how things are going now. Eaton says area residents blame many of their health issues on the coal ash.
“Kidney problems, nerve problems breathing problems there are some people say that they can't stand to take showers because the water sort of burns them have such an odor they can't stand it,” he recalled.
Coal ash contains heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead. Kris Zierold is an environmental health researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She studies coal ash in children.
“What we’re seeing are neurobehavioral problems and mental health problems,” she said.
Zierold says in adults - long-term health problems from living near coal ash may not appear right away.
“Chronically you can see things like COPD, cancers. There's a latency period with cancers usually between 10 and 20 years,” Zierold said.
Zierold and Eaton agree without more studies, it’s hard to prove a connection between the landfill ash and health problems. So Eaton’s group recently started monitoring air quality.
“If it's the smallest. The smallest of things. We want to take notice because it means something,” Eaton said.
In March, the Alabama Department of Environment Management renewed the landfill’s permit for another ten years and in August the landfill changed hands. Its new owner, Waste Connections hasn’t answered APR's calls or emails. Eaton says after more than a decade of fighting, it’s hard not to feel beat down.
“We haven't quit anything that we feel that we can oppose in any kind of way, we'll standing up and do that," he said.
Three hours south of Uniontown, Travis Franklin scoops blue crabs from Mobile Bay. His peace shattered by morning commuters. Coal ash is a concern here as well.
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Franklin said with a chuckle.
He’s talking about the unlined coal ash pit at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry. Franklin is one of many south Alabama residents unaware of the massive lagoon on the edge of the Mobile River.
“We want that coal ash moved. We are educating people so people know how big the issue is,” said eighty- year-old Sallie Smith. She’s one in a trio of grandmothers taking issue with Alabama Power’s plans to close the pond in place. Despite a stage-four cancer diagnosis and being an Alabama Power shareholder, Smith co-founded the Coal Ash Action Group. It’s a grass roots environmental effort. Seventy-five year old Diane Thomas is another senior in the group.
“When we go out, we tell people there’s a ticking time bomb, 20 miles from the head of the bay,” said Smith.
Alabama Power has a state permit to cap the pond. That means the ash would stay at the water’s edge forever. But the women are worried the ecologically diverse tangle of rivers and streams feeding Mobile Bay is just one flood away from an environmental catastrophe.
The group may get a boost from the EPA which recently held a public hearing in Montgomery. The agency proposes denying the state’s coal ash permit program. At the hearing, Susan Comensky, Alabama Power’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs opposed the denial.
“Alabama Power’s plans are safe, compliant with federal and state regulations, and protect human health and the environment,” she said.
There’s no word on when the EPA will issue its decision. Until it does, the seniors will keep fighting. Like Ben Eaton in Uniontown, they know the battle against coal ash could be a long one.
Editor's Note— APR is sad to report the Coal Ash Action group lost its co-founder Sallie Smith, who was featured in Cori Yonge's story. She died from cancer last week at the age of 80
The Bluestone plant makes coke. That’s a coal product used as fuel in the steel-making process. Today, Bluestone Coke is idled by a court settlement and lawsuits filed by local environmental groups accusing Bluestone of violating clean air and water regulations. But, residents say they’re still feeling the effects.
“You are right in the midst of it. You need to come back when that smoke is coming out of that chimney,” said Angela Smith.
We joined her as she talked with her neighbors on a hot summer afternoon. They live in the Fairmont neighborhood directly behind the Bluestone plant and describe the smoke. Wise says it can appear as early as sunrise as she washes up for the day.
“By time I get ready to get into bath…I got a window that's right by the bathtub. It’s so bad that I clean my bathroom and by the time I take a bath, the soot is back in the tub,” Wise recalled. “So basically That's how I found out how bad this was because I kept getting bacteria infections.”
Smith is on dialysis three times a week and the soot from the smoke makes it hard to get clean enough for her treatment. Bluestone is currently shut down due to ongoing litigation. Residents in the Birmingham area say they're still waiting.
“We were shocked to find all these different polluters out there that had been violating for five or 10 years in a row,” said Nelson Brooke. He’s been the Black Warrior Riverkeeper for almost 20 years. Brooke’s job is watching for pollution violations in the waterways and tributaries through West-Central Alabama. Bluestone Coke is high on that list…
“And so, we've been systematically targeted those polluters over the years, whether it's through advocacy or federal lawsuits utilizing the Clean Water Act,” Brooke.
A storm had just passed through Birmingham, and Brooke drives behind Bluestone Coke to monitor runoff into Five Mile Creek.
“It's not supposed to look like chocolate, black mud coffee. No creek is supposed to ever look like that,” Brooke commented.
Brooke says environmental groups like Riverkeeper take on the battles that nobody else in Alabama is willing to fight.
“This is a massive ongoing environmental injustice because a lot of the communities around here were communities that were essentially forced into living in these industrial areas with a little recourse,” Brooke said.
Even the soil was contaminated in these neighborhoods. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that fill dirt potentially containing high levels of lead or arsenic. It was brought from nearby factories and dumped in residential areas to help with development or to reduce flooding.
Ten years later, In 2021 the Jefferson County Health Department didn’t renew Bluestone Coke’s operating permit after repeated violations of The Clean Air Act. In December of 2022, a consent decree ordered Bluestone to pay nearly one million dollars in penalties. That was until published reports that the plant stopped payments on that deal.
And, still residents living in the shadow of Bluestone are stilling waiting…
“I have asthma, kidney failure and a lot more stuff,” said Angela Smith. We met her earlier in our story. She sits on our front porch talking about the illnesses caused by living so close to the plant.
“I just want a nice place where I won’t have to deal with this. Just let me live whatever I’ve got left in peace,” she said.
As the legal issues drag on, environmentalists say protecting air and water polluted by Bluestone Coke is only one challenge. The outsize impact of chemical runoff on black communities can’t be overlooked. They say it should be treated as an ongoing problem and not an issue of the past.
“Oh man, the smell you could not stand, though. Oh man, it was something…if you ever smelled a rotten egg, like 20- day old collard greens mixed together...That smell would come up. It was bad. It was a bad smell,” he says.
David Baker grew up on the west side of Anniston. That is where most of the town’s black residents lived. It was also where the PCB contamination was said to be at its worst. And there were more than just bad smells, there was a mysterious yellow substance.
He says, “My mother used to had to wipe the tables there, before she could cook in the morning because back then you didn’t have air conditions as they have now so your widows was up in the summertime so the contamination would land in on the table” Baker is the founder and director of the Anniston organization Community Against Pollution. Over twenty years ago, he led an effort to get Monsanto to compensate residents for illnesses blamed on PCB contamination.
The story is ongoing and often begins by getting in his truck...
“We had everything over here, everything. This was the projects, houses was there” he says, “...This was a meat market, right there in front of us. No longer is it a meat market. It’s just a dilapidated building now.”
...and APR isn’t the only ones to take that drive and to hear those stories...
“My name is Ryoichi Terada. I'm a professor of Meiji University, Tokyo.”
Terada visited Anniston in March. He is a professor of environmental sociology and has spent his career focused on issues relating to environmental justice.
“He drove us around the community and he explained this is one of our relatives passed away, passed away, passed away…was so heartbreaking.”
The professor was surprised how near residents of Anniston were to the polluters that were blamed for getting them sick...
“Comparing to Japan, the United States is a big country. So, I supposed the factory and dumping site and community has a certain distance in between but I was surprised they're very close, actually.”
Professor Terada made the trip with a small group of researchers including a dean who also teaches with Ibaraki University.
“My name is Yayoi Haraguchi. I am the Dean of College of Humanities and in Social Sciences of Ibaraki University.”
Once Professor Terada’s group wrapped up its visit to Alabama, we caught up with Dean Haraguchi in her office on campus northeast of Tokyo. She was surprised by the differences she found in Anniston between parts of town.
“Yes, I saw some two different communities, a very active and vital side of Anniston and then the other side, quiet and some vacant spaces,” Dean Haraguchi remembers.
In fact, the Japanese are no strangers to PCB contamination. In 1968, they had an issue of their own with what has become known as the Yusho incident. This occurrence helped to alert the international community on the danger of PCBs.
“That was an acute exposure. People ingested cooking oil that had been contaminated with Polychlorinated Biphenyls which are persistent, pervasive, and toxic.”
That's Dr. Ellen Griffith spears. She is a professor and researcher at the University of Alabama, and she shares an interest in environmental justice with Professor Terada and Dean Haraguchi. Her book “Baptized in PCBs” is considered a milestone in the fight for environmental justice. It focuses on the dangers that Anniston residents faced.
According to Dr. Spears, “Monsanto knew that... They had been told in 1937, at a meeting at the Harvard School of Public Health that these chemicals were very damaging to workers, and... severe chloracne, liver disease... Now, we know there are lots of other serious health problems. They're carcinogenic, they can contribute to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They're very neurotoxic to children.”
Dr. Spears met with the group of Japanese researchers at her office at the University of Alabama.
“What I found in talking with Professor Terada and Dean Haraguchi, was that we had very similar interests in the social, environmental, and health consequences...” she says, “One of the things that they're proposing, which I think, I’d be very excited if this comes to fruition, is to bring together communities that have been impacted; community activists and individuals who have been impacted by PCB exposure in the US and Japan and I can see an effort like that expanding to many other places around the globe.”
The final destination in APR’s truck tour with David Baker is the old Monsanto plant. Across Highway 202 is what looks like a small mountain. It’s surrounded by a chain link fence and has warning signs.
“You see how high that mountain is right there. It used to be down this low, but they've been burying... they buried PCBs in that, in that mountain in that, well now it’s a mountain but its PCBs,” Baker says, “They try to they try to cap it and surround it to keep it in but the PCBs still leaks. It just goes all the way through here. You see that road right there. You see that mountain over there? That’s full of PCBs.”
It has been twenty years since Monsanto and its subsidiary Solutia agreed to pay a settlement of close to 700 million dollars to more than 20,000 residents of Anniston. The jury is out whether the lawsuit did enough to help with the ongoing effects of the pollution to the small community in northeast Alabama. Baker continues to be involved in the struggle
Baker says, “People love making money, but you got to understand whatever you make, you got to make sure that you’re not hurting somebody in the meanwhile while you’re making it.”