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Dispatch from Toxic Town
Page 2

Sallie Bowie Franklin, sixty-six, is one of some 3,600 plaintiffs who sued Monsanto, its spin-off Solutia, and their parent company, Pharmacia, in state court. Last February, the court found all three liable for damage they caused by polluting Anniston's land and waterways and poisoning its residents with PCBs. The suit was won on the strength of Monsanto's internal memos, which showed it suspected PCBs were dangerous to people long before it stopped manufacturing them. As far back as 1938, Monsanto knew PCBs were toxic to animals.

photo of the Solutia plant Today, Franklin is surrounded by nothing. Her neighbors are gone; so are their houses. Most of the more than 1,600 people in the area closest to the plant (now operated by Solutia) moved after the companies offered them a $45 million settlement. Solutia then razed about a hundred homes, removed some topsoil, and capped the area with dirt.

Until the court decides how much the damage inflicted upon her and her co-plaintiffs is worth, Franklin is in limbo, stuck waiting in a house that she can't sell and her grandkids can't play around: "After we found out how contaminated it was, they don't come out too often," she says. She has high levels of PCBs in her body, and believes that's why she has lupus of the skin.

Of course, hers is just a hunch. Proving that PCBs caused a specific medical problem is difficult. The Environmental Protection Agency will soon conduct a human-health risk assessment, which will determine where the PCBs are, how much remains, and how harmful they are for people. The Centers for Disease Control is planning a comprehensive health study of the effects of Anniston's pollution on residents, but until all the lawsuits run their course and more people are free to talk, that process will be slow moving.

photo of McCord's list Shirley McCord might be a great resource for such a study. For forty-two years, she's run a west Anniston grocery store, the kind of place where locals can get credit, candy, beer, and pickled pigs' feet. A soft-spoken woman with a kind but focused manner, McCord keeps a list of people she and customers can remember dying over the years. It's more than seventeen pages long; most of the names have "cancer" written beside them.

Lots of people in west Anniston had cancer, kidney, and liver problems, but until that fish was found, no one had directly blamed Monsanto. "The people didn't want to accept it," CAP's Baker says. But they knew in their guts that the rotten-egg stench from the plant and water that turned creeks odd colors couldn't be good for them. In 1995, soil tests showed PCB contamination in Anniston to be higher than had ever been recorded.

Dr. Angela Michiko Martin, director of pediatrics at the town's Northeast Regional Medical Center, sees a lot of babies born with extremely rare brain disorders -- three out of the fifteen cases worldwide of holoproscencephaly, a disease that prevents the brain from forming correctly, are in Calhoun County. "We're seeing some things we cannot explain," she says. "We lead the state in birth defects."

The average person's PCB load is about 2 parts per billion. CAP's Baker, fifty-one, has more than 300 parts per billion. In 1993, after a stint as a union organizer in New York City, Baker returned home, and, with self-assured bravado, became one of Anniston's loudest hell raisers. He helped organize plaintiffs for the state lawsuit and did the same for a federal trial scheduled to begin in January. That suit, which is headed by Johnny Cochran and nationally feared plaintiff's attorney Jere Beasley, involves more than 16,000 complainants. All together, some 25,000 people are involved in various cases and settlements against the companies.

Today Solutia employs just 81 people -- down from 1,400 at its height -- who make a heat-transfer fluid and a chemical used in acetaminophen. Plant manager David L. Cain can't comment on matters still in litigation, but he will say that he thinks it's time for the community to move forward. According to Cain, the company has spent $50 million to date collecting data on polluted land and waterways and cleaning some of those areas. This summer, it will sponsor ten of about forty homes to be built by Habitat for Humanity. It's also part of a redevelopment committee considering the construction of a walking track and a farmer's market -- proposals some are skeptical of. "This is a community initiative," Cain says. "Do not look at this as a Solutia project."

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Photos: Steve Gates

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