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photo of Anniston, Alabama
Dispatch from Toxic Town

by Tara Hulen

Ten years ago, a fisherman pulled a bass out of the Choccolocco. For the people of Anniston, Alabama, life hasn't been the same since.

Just off Interstate 20, about halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta, past a long string of malls, car dealerships, and fast-food restaurants, there is a cluster of buildings set against a backdrop of Appalachian swells. This is Anniston, population 24,000, in many respects a regular, smallish Southeastern town. The sidewalks and streets are litter free, the grass in the parks is trim, and the people are friendly and talkative, the kind who might drive a stranger to where she's going, just to make sure she gets there. High school football occupies fall Friday nights, college football buzzes on radios on Saturdays and, of course, Sundays and Wednesday nights are spent in church.

It seems like the kind of place Samuel Noble and Daniel Tyler, who founded Anniston in the 1870s, would be proud of. The entrepreneurs envisioned the city as a post-Civil War utopia, with their company, the Woodstock Iron Company, at its economic center. They paid workers $1.25 when the going rate was 75 cents. They erected churches and schools and planted thousands of trees. It was also the first city in the state to have electricity and streetcars. Impressed by this idyllic hamlet, one Atlanta newspaper columnist nicknamed Anniston the "Model City." For years, the name stuck.

Anniston also became a military town. Fort McClellan, an Army post, came to Calhoun County in 1890, and in 1942, to house the growing supply of World War II munitions, the Anniston Army Depot opened west of the city, adding thousands of jobs to the area.

For more than a century, the people of Anniston were content with their relationships with the military and industries. That all started to change ten years ago, when a fisherman caught a deformed largemouth bass in nearby Choccolocco Creek and went to the state for answers. The creek turned out to be full of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals once used as insulators in electrical equipment. It also turned out that some of the companies and institutions that created Anniston had created Alabama's most poisonous place to live. The "Model City" now has another name: "Toxic Town."

Monsanto manufactured PCBs in west Anniston for forty years, dumping a reported 10 million pounds of PCBs into landfills and 1.2 million pounds into streams. The company stopped production of PCBs in 1971, and eight years later, the federal government banned them as a probable carcinogen. Today, west Anniston is one of the worst PCB-contaminated places in the country -- and it has other problems. Lead from Woodstock Iron Works, which shut its doors in the 1960s, migrated throughout Anniston in loads of fill-dirt commonly given away for construction projects. And, though Congress voted to close Fort McClellan in 1995, more than 2,000 tons of chemical weapons remain at the depot. The Army plans to start incinerating those weapons in early 2003, in spite of the fact that emergency-preparedness plans won't be in place for months.

All of this has made headlines across the country. "Everybody knows about Anniston, and that's a bad thing," says David Baker, executive director of Community Against Pollution (CAP), an Anniston activist group.

At a local barbecue restaurant, a group of friends replied in perfect unison when asked how they feel about Anniston today. "We've been dumped on," they say, as if they've been asked a hundred times before.

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Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Tara Hulen has been a journalist covering a variety of southern topics -- from the environment to hot dogs -- for fifteen years.

Photos: Steve Gates

OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council