1 January 2001
The Sweet Valley and Cobbtown neighborhoods were vibrant working-class areas
with mom-and-pop businesses and modest homes.
Then investigators found astronomical levels of PCBs
and declared the communities public health hazards.
They called it "Alabama clay" and cooked it for extra flavor. They also grew berries in their gardens, raised hogs in their back yards, caught bass in the murky streams where their children swam and played and were baptized. They didn't know their dirt and yards and bass and kids - along with the acrid air they breathed - were all contaminated with chemicals.
They didn't know they lived in one of
the most polluted patches of America.
They also know that for nearly 40 years,
while producing the now-banned
industrial coolants known as PCBs
at a local factory, Monsanto Co. routinely discharged toxic waste
into a west Anniston creek and dumped millions of pounds of PCBs
into oozing open-pit landfills. And thousands of pages of Monsanto
documents - many emblazoned with warnings such as "CONFIDENTIAL:
Read and Destroy" - show that for decades, the corporate giant
concealed what it did and what it knew.
In 1975, a company study found that PCBs
caused tumors in rats. They ordered its conclusion changed from
"slightly tumorigenic" to "does not appear to be carcinogenic."
David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the State University of New York at Albany, has been a leading advocate of the EPA's plan to dredge the Hudson, but he says the PCB problems in Anniston are much worse.
The Anniston lawsuits have uncovered a voluminous paper trail, revealing an unusually detailed story of secret corporate machinations in the era before strict environmental regulations and right-to-know laws.
The documents - obtained by The
Washington Post from plaintiffs' attorneys and the Environmental
Working Group, a chemical industry watchdog - date as far back as
the 1930s, but they expose actions with consequences that are still
Robert Kaley, the environmental affairs director for Solutia who also serves as the PCB expert for the American Chemistry Council, said it is unfair to judge the company's behavior from the 1930s through 1970s by modern standards.
But Monsanto's uncertain legacy is as embedded in west Anniston's psyche as it is in the town's dirt.
The EPA and the World Health
Organization classify PCBs as "probable carcinogens," and while no
one has determined whether the people in Anniston are sicker than
average, Solutia has opposed proposals for comprehensive health
studies as unnecessary. And it has not apologized for any of its
contamination or deception.
The guy who burned the soles off his boots while walking on Monsanto's landfill. The dog that died after a sip from Snow Creek, the long-abused drainage ditch that runs from the Monsanto plant through the heart of west Anniston's cinder-block cottages and shotgun houses.
Sylvester Harris, 63, an undertaker who lived across the street from the plant, said he always thought he was burying too many young children.
Opal Scruggs, 65, has spent her entire life in west Anniston, the last few decades in a cottage in back of a Waffle House behind the plant.
But in recent years, Monsanto has bought and demolished about 100 PCB-tainted homes and mom-and-pop businesses nearby, turning her neighborhood into a virtual ghost town.
Now she has elevated PCB levels in her blood - along with Harris and many of their neighbors - and she believes she's a "walking time bomb."
It was named in 1879 for the foundry
owner's wife - Annie's Town - but it was nicknamed "The Model City
of the South" because it was supposed to be a kind of industrial
utopia, a centrally planned rebuke to the North's slums after the
Civil War. The company would provide the workers' cottages, the
general store, the church, the schools. It would take care of the
The American public had no idea of the downside of PCBs until the late 1960s. Monsanto did.
Shortly after buying the 70-acre plant at the foot of Coldwater Mountain in 1935, the company learned that PCBs, in the double-negative of one company memo, "cannot be considered non-toxic."
A 1937 Harvard study was the first to find that prolonged exposure could cause liver damage and a rash called chloracne.
Monsanto then hired the scientist who
led the study as a consultant, and company memos began acknowledging
the "systemic toxic effects" of
Aroclors, the brand name for PCBs.
Monsanto also began warning its industrial customers to protect
their workers from Aroclors by requiring showers after every shift,
providing them with clean work clothes every day and keeping fumes
away from factory floors.
In February 1950, when workers fell ill at a customer's Indiana factory, Monsanto's medical director, Emmett Kelly, immediately,
Two years later, Monsanto signed an agreement with the U.S. Public Health Service to label Aroclors:
The company also warned its industrial customers about ecological risks:
But it did not warn its neighbors.
In 1998, a former Anniston plant manager, William Papageorge, was asked in a deposition whether Monsanto officials ever shared their data about PCB hazards with the community.
In the fall of 1966, Monsanto hired a Mississippi State University biologist named Denzel Ferguson to conduct some studies around its Anniston plant. Ferguson, who died in 1998, arrived with tanks full of bluegill fish, which he caged in cloth containers and submerged at various points along nearby creeks.
This is what he reported to Monsanto about the results in Snow Creek:
The problem, Ferguson concluded, was the "extremely toxic" wastewater flowing directly from the Monsanto plant into Snow Creek, and then into the larger Choccolocco Creek, where he noted similar "die-offs."
The outflow, he calculated,
He warned Monsanto:
He urged Monsanto to clean up Snow
Creek, and to stop dumping untreated waste there.
They proved that PCBs are persistent - which, as one lawyer drawled in court last spring,
But Monsanto's primary response was to prepare for a media war.
The first thing Monsanto's board did, in
November 1967, was approve a $2.9 million expansion of Aroclors
operations in Anniston and Sauget, Ill. The vote was unanimous.
Jack Matson, a Pennsylvania State
University environmental engineering professor who has consulted for
Monsanto, concluded in a report for the Anniston plaintiffs that the
company failed to observe even basic industry practices here. It had
no catch basins, settling ponds or carbon filters to clean its
wastewater. It washed spills straight into its sewers.
A consultant scolded Monsanto to stop denying problems and start cleaning up:
Another memo - labeled C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-T-I-A-L, with each letter underlined twice - said the company was finally thinking about limiting releases of Aroclors.
But the memo did not go so far as to propose a cleanup - "only action preparatory to actual cleanup."
According to minutes of the first meeting, the committee had only two formal objectives:
But the members agreed that the situation looked bleak.
PCBs had been found across the nation in fish, oysters and even bald eagles. They had been identified in milk in Georgia and Maryland. They were implicated in a major shrimp kill in Florida.
Their status as a serious pollutant, the committee concluded, was "certain."
One option, as a member put it, was to "sell the hell out of them as long as we can."
Another option was to stop making them immediately. But the committee instead recommended "The Responsible Approach" - phasing out its PCB products, but only once it could develop alternatives.
The idea was to maintain,
The committee even drew up graphs
charting profits vs. liability over time, and urged more studies to
poke holes in the government's case against PCBs.
The chairman pressured the company's consultants for more Monsanto-friendly results, but they replied:
The picture was not bright in Anniston, either.
Company studies were finding "ominous" concentrations of PCBs in streams and sediments. In Choccolocco Creek, Monsanto had discovered deformed and lethargic fish with off-the-charts PCB levels, including a blacktail shiner with 37,800 parts per million.
The legal maximum was only 5 parts per million.
At first, the committee members proposed reducing PCB releases to an "absolute minimum." But then they removed the word "absolute."
They saw no benefit in a unilateral crackdown on Monsanto's PCBs when Monsanto's customers were still dumping, too:
And before Monsanto even began to phase out its best-selling PCBs, its top customer intervened:
Monsanto agreed to slow down its plan,
and kept making PCBs until 1977, although only for closely monitored
Monsanto's critics, Kaley says, do not understand capitalism.
Members of Congress were calling for hearings. It seemed like only a matter of time before regulators would notice the river of PCBs spewing out of the Anniston plant.
So Monsanto decided to inform the
Alabama Water Improvement Commission (AWIC) on its own that PCBs
were entering Snow Creek. And AWIC helped the company keep its toxic
The Monsanto executives assured him that everything was under control, and Crockett, who is now deceased, said he appreciated their forthright approach.
That summer, Crockett again came to Monsanto's rescue after the federal Food and Drug Administration found PCB-tainted fish in Choccolocco Creek. (There were no fish - or any other aquatic life - in Snow Creek.)
Monsanto's managers told him not to worry, saying they hoped to reduce PCB emissions to 0.1 pounds per day by September.
Crockett explained that if word leaked
out, the state would be forced to ban fishing in Choccolocco Creek
and a popular lake downstream to ensure public safety.
The problem had festered for 36 years,
but the Anniston managers finally began to act that fall, installing
a sump, a carbon bed and a new limestone pit to trap PCBs. And in
1971, facing as much as $1 billion in additional pollution control
costs in Anniston, Monsanto shifted all PCB production to its plant
One executive noted with relief in a memo that a federal prosecutor had tried but failed to obtain Monsanto's customer list:
Monsanto's luck with regulators held in 1983, when the federal Soil Conservation Service found PCBs in Choccolocco Creek, but took no action.
In 1985, state authorities found PCB-tainted soils around Snow Creek, but a dispute over cleanup details lingered until a new attorney general named Donald Siegelman took office in 1988.
In a letter that April, Monsanto's Anniston superintendent thanked Siegelman - who is now the state's Democratic governor - for addressing the Alabama Chemical Association, and meeting Monsanto's lobbyists for dinner.
Then he got to the point:
The company soon received approval to do
But several state officials acknowledged that a dozen years earlier, Alabama should have tested a much larger area for PCBs before approving Monsanto's limited plan.
The larger problem finally burst into
public view in 1993, after a local angler caught deformed largemouth
bass in Choccolocco Creek. After studies again detected PCBs,
Alabama issued the first advisories against eating fish from the
area - 27 years after Monsanto learned about those bluegills sliding
out of their skins.
The PCB levels in the air were also too high. And in blood tests, nearly one-third of the residents of the working-class Sweet Valley and Cobbtown neighborhoods near the plant were found to have elevated PCB levels. The communities were declared public health hazards.
Near Snow Creek, the state warned,
That's when Monsanto launched a program to buy and raze contaminated properties, offering early sign-up bonuses and moving expenses as incentives.
Sally Franklin, a 64-year-old retired mechanic with a girlish voice, decided to stay; she couldn't afford to buy a new home with the money Monsanto was offering.
One spring afternoon, she looked down from her PCB-contaminated home overlooking what used to be Sweet Valley, now just an overgrown field around an incongruous stop sign.
So much for good neighbors, she grumbled.
The EPA officials who set up an Anniston
satellite office to deal with the PCB problem are now alarmed about
widespread lead poisoning as well. The Army is building an
incinerator here to burn 2,000 tons of deadly
sarin and mustard gas. And the
Anniston Star has been questioning Monsanto's past mercury releases.
He meant that literally, too.
Local activists want Monsanto to dredge all its PCBs out of Anniston's creeks and move all its buried PCBs to hazardous-waste landfills. That could cost billions of dollars. But state and EPA officials do not agree that such drastic measures are necessary. They have no evidence that PCBs have escaped from the dumps since Monsanto was required to cap them after a spill in 1996; they believe most of Anniston's PCBs spread from the creeks during floods.
And dredging projects such as the one approved for the Hudson River remain scientifically as well as politically controversial.
Part of the problem is that despite all the publicity, much remains unknown about PCBs.
Various animal studies have linked them to various cancers. Other studies suggest possible ties to,
A federal research summary titled "Do PCBs Affect Human Health?" concluded:
But no one has found a link between PCBs and any cancer as definitive as the link between, say, cigarettes and lung cancer.
A recent GE-funded study - conducted by
the same toxicologist who originally discovered that PCBs cause
cancer in rats - found no link to cancer in humans. And some
independent scientists remain skeptical of any serious health
effects from real-world PCB exposure.
Its brochures pledge to "insure environmental safety and health for the community" and to hide nothing from Anniston residents:
Still, the company's credibility problems linger in Anniston.
A recent company e-mail revealed that even the gifts of computers and labs were part of a new damage-control strategy, along with donations to Siegelman's inaugural fund:
The company's critics say little has changed.
And they warn that Monsanto, which no longer produces chemicals, is now promising the world that its genetically engineered crops are safe for human consumption.
On Jan. 7, the two sides will have their day in court.
Kaley said his company has nothing to hide.